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Attorney Ashley Anson is seen in the reflection of a mirror in her office along with photos of her with South Dakota Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson in Wessington Springs. Anson runs her own general practice law firm back in her hometown. Matt Gade / Forum News Service

Program to establish attorneys in rural SD thriving after five years

MITCHELL, S.D.—Almost five years since South Dakota launched a first-of-its-kind program to recruit and retain attorneys in rural areas, Project Rural Practice is not only working — it's growing.

"I do not know that we really expected the program to be as successful as it was," said Suzanne Starr, director of the Division of Policy and Legal Services at the Unified Judicial System. "We had those initial 16 spots to fill up in four years and we filled them up in two."

In South Dakota, more than 60 percent of attorneys live and work in four cities: Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen and Pierre. The Unified Judicial System and the South Dakota State Bar Association sought to change this and address communities in need of legal representation.

Project Rural Practice places attorneys in rural counties, where people must otherwise travel great distances for legal representation. The pilot 16 attorneys of Project Rural Practice have only seen one dropout, and the program has funding to expand to 32 attorneys by 2022.

The next group of 16 attorneys, Starr said, is already being accepted and placed in communities.

"The true measure of real success will be who from the program stays after their fifth year," Starr said. "We have a lot of kids in law school that want to go home, back to these rural areas and practice law. We are probably going to fill up the next round pretty quickly."

The South Dakota Legislature, the State Bar and the Unified Judicial System agreed to pay 35 percent of incentive payments to retain the attorneys to these rural practices. Individual counties would pay the remaining amount. The attorneys each agreed to work in a rural community and in return they each received roughly $60,000 in incentive payments distributed over five years. After the fifth year the attorneys can decide if they want to stay in the community or move elsewhere.

"The hope is they have established deep roots and established a viable practice to remain in that community as a private practice lawyer," former South Dakota State Bar President Patrick Goetzinger said.

And while placing 32 attorneys into rural communities is starting to address the shortage of lawyers in these rural communities, there is more work to be done.

Two years ago the state's legislature expanded the program to include an internship program and allow 48 counties to qualify to request an attorney through Project Rural Practice. If additional funding is later approved the goal of having an attorney in all 48 counties would be achievable by 2027.

Sticking around

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what placed a magnifying glass on the need to have attorneys in rural areas. But certainly attorney Fredric Cozad had some influence. Cozad died earlier this year, but according to Goetzinger, Cozad's legacy is not lost.

Cozad worked as one of the few attorneys in Bennett County. When he retired after 64 years of legal work there was no attorney in the surrounding 120 miles. His retirement exposed a big disparity on where legal services were desperately needed.

The first "sweet 16," as Goetzinger refers to them, are proving that Project Rural Practice was not only needed but welcomed by the young attorneys filling the slots.

Amanda Work grew up in West Virginia, and during law school she realized she didn't want to start her profession in a large metropolitan area.

When Work heard about Project Rural Practice, she applied and was placed at Swier Law Firm working in Winner. It's her fourth year in the program and she has no plans to move or change jobs after the initial pilot program ends sometime next year. In addition to her legal work, she is also involved in the community, sitting on several committee boards and is president of the local chamber of commerce. Winner has a population of fewer than 3,000 people, but Work said she always has clients.

"I pretty much take on any case that walks in the door — from family law to criminal defense," Work said. "As a rural attorney, you help the community locally ... and more attorneys are likely to move into the area knowing there is already an attorney there."

Similar to Work, Jake Fisher, the program's first official participant, has no plans to move once his five years are finished. Fisher went to school at Parkston High School and his family owns a farm between Parkston and Corsica. When he heard about the program after completing law school in Minneapolis, he decided it was time to return to his roots.

"Frankly I think the program ended up being a fairly big motivator in bringing me back to South Dakota," Fisher said.

Since moving to Corsica, Fisher has worked on agricultural, family, estate planning, and public defense cases. He is one of four or five attorneys practicing full time in Douglas County but said he is "constantly busy." Fisher said as a rural attorney he must become an expert on several areas of law.

"It can take a lot of extra work to research and prepare because I am not doing the same thing every day," Fisher said.