75% of S.D. lawyers work in four counties, leading to rural-lawyer shortageAfter seven years of practicing law in Las Vegas, Anita Fuoss made an uncommon career choice. Rather than continue climbing the ladder in a big-city firm, she returned to her native Jones County, South Dakota — population 1,193 — to open her own office.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
After seven years of practicing law in Las Vegas, Anita Fuoss made an uncommon career choice.
Rather than continue climbing the ladder in a big-city firm, she returned to her native Jones County, South Dakota — population 1,193 — to open her own office.
Why Jones County? Besides considering it a good place to live, Fuoss noticed there was only one lawyer in the county who was nearing retirement age. Lawyers in nearby counties were in their 50s and 60s.
“It seemed, demographically, like it was a promising place to be,” Fuoss said.
That was 1994. She’s been happily working out of her Murdo office ever since.
David Gilbertson, the chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, wishes more lawyers would follow Fuoss’ lead. He said about 75 percent of the lawyers in the state reside in just four of the state’s 66 counties — Minnehaha, home to Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city; Pennington, home to Rapid City, the state’s second-largest city; Brown, home to Aberdeen, the state’s third-largest city; and Hughes, home to Pierre, the state capital.
In all, there are about 1,500 lawyers across South Dakota, and Gilbertson considers that to be a sufficient overall number. The lawyers are just too concentrated in bigger cities, because younger lawyers are flocking there instead of replacing the aging lawyers in small towns.
“It’s a crisis unfolding before our eyes,” Gilbertson said.
The consequences of the rural-lawyer shortage are numerous.
Rural people are driving long distances for even the simplest of legal services, and local governments are paying faraway lawyers for travel time and mileage. Activity at rural courthouses is declining, leading to reduced courthouse hours and fears of closures.
Both sides of the criminal system are being impacted, because victims and the accused are driving long distances to court proceedings. The accused are searching far and wide for defense attorneys, because the few lawyers that reside in rural areas are typically elected to serve as prosecutors. Accused people also face the prospect of trials in faraway cities with juries of total strangers, rather than hometown peers.
In counties where judges and lawyers are becoming rare sights, Fuoss said, people are beginning to view the justice system as an external force rather than a community fixture. She thinks popular regard for the justice system in those areas is declining, and she fears a destabilizing effect on rural life.
“There’s a real difference in attitude on people’s parts as to how they view the court system,” Fuoss said, “based on how much exposure they have to the system and how accessible it is to the average person.”
Fuoss and Gilbertson agree that action is needed to confront the crisis, but little is being done. There is, however, at least some understanding of young lawyers’ reasons for avoiding rural areas.
Fuoss said the rural-lawyer shortage is being driven primarily by misconceptions. Chief among those misconceptions, she said, is the widely held belief that life in a small town is isolating, the practice of law in a small town isn’t intellectually stimulating, and there isn’t enough business in a small town to make a law office successful.
Such beliefs aren’t true, according to Fuoss.
Isolating forces are mitigated by modern technology such as the Internet, which Fuoss said has allowed her to stay in regular contact with attorneys from all over the world.
Intellectual stimulation arises naturally out of the diversification that comes with being the only lawyer for miles around. Fuoss handles criminal issues as the state’s attorney of both Jones and Lyman counties, and she also handles real-estate and business-formation issues in her own practice.
Fears of too little business are especially false, according to Fuoss, who said there’s actually too much business for her to handle.
“There is so much work out here,” she said, “that I’ve reached a point where I turn away large areas of practice because I just don’t have the time to work on them.”
Fuoss’ observations about the reasons for the rural-lawyer shortage come from her observations of colleagues. Gilbertson has attempted to gain a better understanding of the problem by discussing it with students at the state’s only law school, at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
In addition to the concerns that Fuoss identified, Gilbertson said students have doubts about the availability of jobs for spouses in small towns, they don’t think they’ll make enough money in a small town to pay for malpractice insurance and the other costs of running an office, and their concerns about student-loan debt are driving them to seek steady paychecks from corporate or government jobs in big cities.
Money is an especially important issue, Gilbertson said, because young lawyers commonly leave law school with more than $60,000 of debt. Statistics from the state Department of Labor show that concerns about lower pay in rural areas are valid, though the difference in earnings might not be as great as feared. Lawyers in the state’s more rural central region, for example, make an average of $70,065 per year, while the average in the more-populated east and west regions is $82,738 and $86,333, respectively.
Fuoss didn’t escape monetary concerns. It was only after she paid down her student loans that she was able to consider a return to South Dakota. She and Gilbertson think more young lawyers might follow her example if they had access to debt-forgiveness programs, similar to existing programs that forgive some of the student-loan debt of medical professionals who agree to spend the first few years of their career in a rural area.
Fuoss said rural communities could also help address the rural-lawyer shortage by banding together to make free or reduced-rent office space available to lawyers for the first few years of their practice.
No ‘magic cure’
Beyond those solutions, Gilbertson said, awareness might be the only tool. He’s done his part by mentioning the rural-lawyer shortage in several speeches.
“I have no magic cure,” he said. “I’m watching a disaster slowly unfold. But it hasn’t gotten quite bad enough, like most disasters, to where people will understand that’s what it is.”
There are still enough attorneys to address most of the needs in rural areas, Gilbertson said. But the pool of rural lawyers has already shrunk to such a point that, within 10 years, those few existing rural lawyers could be gone.
“And it’s going to be very hard,” Gilbertson said, “to reverse at that point.”
In the meantime, Fuoss said, she’ll continue to cherish her rural practice. She enjoys the collegiality that comes with seeing the same judges and lawyers numerous times. She enjoys dealing directly with clients instead of, as was often the case in Vegas, other lawyers. And she enjoys the simple things, like wearing jeans to work when she feels like it.
She might not be as rich as she would be in a big city, but she considers that a blessing.
“I know an awful lot of millionaire lawyers,” Fuoss said, “and they’re not very happy.”