Dearth of Rural Lawyers in U.S. Leads South Dakota to Pass Law to Subsidize Them

Thursday, April 11, 2013
Fred Cozad, the last lawyer in Martin, South Dakota (photo: Kristi Eaton, AP)

The lure of working for corporations has resulted in a disproportionate number of lawyers working in metropolitan areas, leaving many rural communities without legal help.


Only about 2% of small law practices in the U.S. are in rural areas, which accounts for nearly a fifth of the population, according to The New York Times.


About 65% of attorneys in South Dakota reside in four urban areas. Atlanta has 70% of Georgia’s lawyers. Ninety-four percent of Arizona’s attorneys are in its two largest counties, and 83% of Texas’ are in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.


In South Dakota, lawmakers decided to do something to correct the state’s imbalance of lawyers. They adopted legislation that offers lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work in rural areas, which is similar to what’s been done nationally to encourage doctors and nurses to live in small towns.


The law, which is the first of its kind in the nation, establishes a pilot program that has the participation of 16 lawyers, each of whom makes a five-year commitment and receives an annual subsidy of $12,000. The program will begin in June.


Supporters of getting more attorneys in rural areas note that there is an abundance of law school graduates looking for jobs. In the past two years, only 55% of those graduates have found full-time work.


“In some areas we probably do have an oversupply of lawyers, but in others we have a chronic undersupply, and that problem is getting worse,” David B. Wilkins, who directs a program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School, told the Times. “In the 1970s, lawyers spent about half their time serving individuals and half on corporations. By the 1990s, it was two-thirds for corporations. So there has been a skewing toward urban business practice and neglect of many other legal needs.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

No Lawyer for Miles, So One Rural State Offers Pay (by Ethan Bronner, New York Times)

Rural Attorney Recruitment Bill Signed by Governor Daugaard (South Dakota Unified Judicial System)


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