Rural lawyer recruitment efforts show local results, but fail to alter urban-rural divide

By: - January 15, 2023 12:59 am
Tripp County will be the first South Dakota county in two decades to hand count ballots in an election, according to the Secretary of State's Office. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The Tripp County Courthouse in Winner. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

In 2013, then-Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court David Gilbertson was quoted in The New York Times for a story on a shortage of lawyers in rural areas.

Gilbertson helped spearhead an effort called “Project Rural Practice,” a coordinated effort to address that issue. 

The goal was critical, Gilbertson told reporter Ethan Bronner. Sixty-five percent of lawyers in South Dakota lived in four urban areas: Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen and Pierre.

“We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services,” he said. 

A decade later, South Dakota has more lawyers overall, but the ratio of rural to urban has gotten worse. As of January, 72% of lawyers live in the same four cities.

That’s why Patrick Goetzinger, another champion of Project Rural Practice, views the state’s legal access issues through a different lens than those who would argue that South Dakota has a shortage of lawyers overall.

“We don’t have a problem with the number of lawyers,” the Rapid City attorney said. “We have a distribution problem.”

Rural-Urban Divide for South Dakota Lawyers

The State Bar of South Dakota has 2,025 active members. The vast majority of those lawyers practice in one of four counties.

Minnehaha: 41%

Pennington: 19%

Hughes: 8%

Brown: 4%

And while Goetzinger acknowledges that the widened ratio is concerning, he sees Project Rural Practice as a program that’s made a difference in several rural counties. 

The joint efforts of the State Bar of South Dakota and the Unified Judicial System (UJS) to draw new lawyers to small towns have resulted in the recruitment of 31 lawyers over the past 10 years in every corner of the state, 14 of whom were practicing in rural areas last year.

The UJS Rural Attorney Recruitment Program, funded by the Legislature, is the state arm of the Bar-led Project Rural Practice. It pays new lawyers about $12,500 a year for five years for working in counties with populations of 10,000 or less or cities with populations of 3,500 or less. The counties or cities foot 35% of the bill.

So far, 10 attorneys have completed all five years. Of those, seven have stayed rural.

The program made a difference for Zach Pahlke, the Tripp County state’s attorney. Pahlke is one of the seven who stuck around. 

He grew up in Winner, the son of two lawyers, but he didn’t initially expect to follow in their footsteps. He decided to go to law school a year after earning his business administration degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“I was looking to come back to South Dakota, but I can’t say I would have come back to Winner without this program,” Pahlke said. 

In many ways, practicing in a rural area is more difficult for a recent graduate than practicing in urban areas. Wages are lower and the number of available cases are fewer – a daunting thought for a law school graduate with a heavy debt load.

The UJS program essentially covers student loan payments, which made Pahlke’s choice to come back easier to make.

Also a help: his parents’ guidance. One of the most difficult parts of being a young lawyer in a small town is the sheer range of legal questions they might face.

“Rural practice is pretty general and broad, so you know a little about a multitude of fields rather than specializing,” Pahlke said. “It does take a while to build up a competence in multiple areas, and in rural areas there are fewer attorneys to guide you.”

The city of Winner has opened its checkbook to show appreciation for the program, offering another $15,000 over five years on top of the UJS payout for another rural practice lawyer.

Goetzinger believes moves like that signal the next step for attracting and retaining rural lawyers: community buy-in.

“That’s the kind of story that we like to hear – creative thinking at the local level to supplement and incentivize people coming to their community,” he said. 




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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.