By Regina Garcia Cano
Corsica, SD — By landing a steady job in a hopping metropolis, Jake Fischer achieved the dream of many who finished law school during the Great Recession. Then, he left the big-city life and moved to a small South Dakota town, lured by a program that seeks to boost the number of rural attorneys.
Although federal grant money for decades has been available for doctors, nurses and dentists willing to relocate to sparsely populated areas, the South Dakota program is believed to be the first of its kind to similarly compensate lawyers.
Fischer, who is married with one child, is the first of up to 16 attorneys accepted into the program, which is funded by the state’s judicial system, the South Dakota Bar Association and the counties. It offers an annual subsidy of $12,000 — or 90 percent of the cost of a year at the University of South Dakota Law School — to live and practice in rural communities.
The 30-year-old left his job at a Minneapolis nonprofit this past spring to work at his new law office in Corsica, S.D., about 25 miles from his hometown of Parkston. He’s the only full-time attorney in the town of 600 and one of just two full-time in a county of about 3,000 people, almost 100 miles away from the nearest metro area.
“Being in a small town, of course you have to do a little bit of everything, criminal law, land deals, business deals, estate planning, the whole range of stuff really,” Fischer said.
Four urban areas in South Dakota have 65 percent of the state’s lawyers and rural residents sometimes have to drive nearly 100 miles for legal advice. But South Dakota isn’t the only state struggling with attracting lawyers to rural areas.
In Nebraska, 12 of the state’s 93 counties have no practicing attorney. Only about 30 percent of Georgia’s attorneys can be found outside the Atlanta area. And even in New York with nearly 170,000 attorneys, more than 60 percent concentrate in New York City.
South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson, a former small-town lawyer himself, said such a disparity threatens the legal system.
“You can have the courthouse doors wide open, you can have the judge sitting in the courthouse, but without lawyers to represent the clients, nothing is going to happen, or very little,” Gilbertson said. “They make the whole system work.”
In the sparsely populated state, cash-strapped communities have to hire lawyers from nearby towns to take part in board and commission meetings, as well as to serve as prosecutors or court-appointed defenders.
Jim Silkenat, immediate past president of the American Bar Association, said South Dakota has “led the way” in its effort to attract rural attorneys, but some other states are starting to take similar steps.
Nebraska next year will begin repaying loans for law school graduates who commit to serving at least three years in underserved communities in the state. The state bar also is teaming with two law schools to offer summer clerkships at rural firms.
And Legal Aid of Arkansas recently received a $15,000 grant from the American Bar Association to fund fellowships for newly admitted lawyers who serve in rural areas for one year.
Fischer said, for him, the idea of returning “home” was appealing. But recruiting attorneys — and sometimes their spouse and children — to rural areas isn’t easy. Many graduates believe their income will be much lower and won’t allow them to repay their student debt, which typically surpasses $100,000.
“One of the big things, honestly, that my wife and I thought about is losing some of the culture, losing some of the entertainment, and things like that,” Fischer said. “But the Internet has opened up so much stuff that you can get whatever you want. You can access music and movies and all that stuff. We all have the same resources.”