A 2012 American Bar Association report on the status of rural law services stated that "The main street attorney in rural America is an endangered species. The small number of rural lawyers in relation to the unmet need for legal services in rural areas is shocking. The impact of losing rural lawyers on the economic viability of rural communities and the delivery of justice to residents in these areas is potentially devastating." In South Dakota, 65% of the attorneys are located in only four cities.
In this report the state of South Dakota is identified as taking the initiative to counteract and correct this situation. The State Bar formed the Project Rural Practice ("PRP"). It is is a collaborative effort involving multiple organizations in law, government, business and educaction. It was charged with the task of identifying the scope of the decline of main street lawyers in rural South Dakota and assessing its impact and developing recommendations.
This year in March 2013, the efforts of the project have bore fruit in the signing of a state bill to specifically assist in the recruitment of attorneys to the state's rural areas of South Dakota. However, the bill appears to be only a first step in that direction.
The legislation establishes a recruitment assistance pilot program that is initially limited to no more than16 attorneys. Participants must be licensed to practice in South Dakota. The incentive payment is limited to 90% of the tuition and fees of attending the University of South Dakota Law School. At present this is about $12,000 which seems dwarfed by the 100,000 plus debts that many law grads have today.
Also, there are some very inflexible terms in the law if there is a default by a participating attorney in carrying out their full 5 year commitment. "If the attorney has received a payment pursuant to this Act and subsequently breeches the agreement, the attorney shall repay all sums received pursuant to this Act under the terms and conditions set by the Unified Judicial System. Failure to make repayment is grounds for discipline..."
The law also seems to significantly limit the possible pool of participating attorneys for the program. "No person may participate in the program established pursuant to the provisions of this Act if the person has previously participated in the program, or any other state or federal scholarship, loan repayment, or tuition reimbursement program that obligates the person to provide attorney services within an underserved area." It is not clear why attorneys who have previously done this type of work would not be considered good candidates for the state's program.
The South Dakota Supreme Court can promulgate rules necessary to implement the Act. Hopefully, it will be able to ameliorate these seemingly counter-productive provisions in the law.