Small-town lawyers may be a dying breed, but South Dakota hopes public subsidies will slow their decline.

Governor Dennis Daugaard on March 21 signed first-in-the-nation legislation establishing incentive payments to as many as 16 attorneys who agree to practice in rural areas for at least five years. If the pilot program works, it could provide a blueprint for others states desperate for small-town lawyers. "South Dakota has enough attorneys — they’re just not in the right locations," said state Senator Mike Vehle, who sponsored the bill. "We do this for doctors, dentists and nurses, so why not lawyers?"

Participating attorneys will receive the equivalent of 90 percent of the in-state tuition and fees at the University of South Dakota School of Law — about $12,000 — for each of the five years that they practice full-time in a rural county. That’s on top of any earnings from their practice during the subsidy period, said Greg Sattizahn, director of policy and legal services for the South Dakota Unified Judicial System. The program will cost nearly $1 million, with the state picking up half the tab.

Vehle and Chief Justice David Gilbertson patterned the subsidy after a well-established incentive program for rural doctors, dentists and nurses. Gilbertson has been increasingly concerned about the decline in rural attorneys since he became the state’s top judge in 2001. "I had made a commitment to visit each courthouse in the state, and as I drove around the rural areas it became obvious to me that the attorneys I used to know were gone," he said. "They had died or moved away, and no one had replaced them." Younger attorneys, it seems, prefer to live and practice in cities.

Gilbertson began highlighting the problem in speeches, referring to what he called "islands of justice" — a nod to the fact that four of South Dakota’s 66 counties contain 65 percent of the state’s attorneys. During one State of the Judiciary speech, Vehle said, the chief justice displayed a grim prop: a sign reading "Next Attorney 129 miles."

LOOMING MENTOR GAP

"A young attorney can make a lot of difference in a small town but, when you go into a smaller community, you have to have someone there to mentor you. As these older attorneys retire, there won’t be anyone left to be mentors," Vehle said. "On top of that, 40 percent of our judges could retire now. If there are no attorneys to take over a judgeship, these rural courthouses could be in jeopardy."

The State Bar of South Dakota in 2011 launched what it called Project Rural Practice to assess the decline of so-called "Main Street" lawyers and identify ways to reverse the trend. Since then, the organization has been running an online message board to connect rural attorneys with law students interested in joining or taking over their practices. The financial subsidies are the next step.

Only counties with 10,000 people or fewer are eligible, meaning 48 of the state’s 66 counties could qualify. Court administrators will look at the county’s demographics, the age and size of its bar and recommendations by its presiding judge before approving an attorney. Gilbertson will have final say. He intends to prevent any attorney using the money to establish a satellite location while maintaining a primary office in a larger city — or using the program to scale down to a part-time practice.

Counties that host an attorney must cover 35 percent of the subsidy and the state bar 15 percent; the state court system will pick up the rest. The idea’s backers suggest that counties might want to go in with local institutions such as hospitals or school boards to defray the cost, Sattizahn said.

The Legislature narrowly rejected Vehle’s original idea of merely subsidizing tuition at the law school for students who agreed to work in rural counties upon graduating. The final language stipulates that participants must be licensed to practice in the state.

The program is intended for attorneys of all ages, not just those fresh out of law school, Sattizahn said. In fact, attorneys who grew up in South Dakota’s small towns and want to return home might prove the most likely participants, Gilbertson said. The chief judge has met with law students to discuss rural practices and said that most were open to the idea but worried it wouldn’t pay enough for them to keep up with their education loan repayments. Additionally, a growing percentage of students at the state’s only law school hail from South Dakota’s larger cities, interim dean Thomas Geu said, and might be intimidated by the prospect of moving to an unfamiliar small town to open a full-service practice right out of school.

"I think it [the subsidies] will help convince future graduates to take a look at rural practices," Geu said. "It’s not just about the money, in my opinion — even though the money is a big deal. It’s also about the visibility and the attention this will put on rural practices."

South Dakota is hardly the only state confronting a lack of rural attorneys. The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in August passed a resolution urging state and local governments to boost the number of small-town lawyers. The accompanying report called Main Street attorneys an "endangered species." In Arizona, 94 percent of the attorneys practiced in the state’s two largest counties, the ABA found. In Georgia, 70 percent practiced in metropolitan Atlanta, while most low-income residents lived outside that area. Six of Georgia’s 159 counties had no lawyers at all; 62 had 10 or fewer. In Texas, 83 percent of the attorneys practiced in the four largest metropolitan areas: Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

SUMMER JOBS, BUS TOURS

In Iowa, where fewer than 4 percent of the attorneys live in the 33 least populated counties, the State Bar Association launched a clerkship program last year that placed eight students from in-state law schools into summer jobs at rural firms or solo practitioners. The idea was that those students would pursue rural practices.

"Everybody was very happy with the program, and I think we’ll probably end up with about a dozen students this summer," said Philip Garland, co-chairman of the bar’s rural practice committee. He has had a tougher time convincing rural attorneys to spend the time to take on a summer clerk, however.

The Nebraska State Bar Association this year organized two bus tours of central Nebraska for seven students at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha and 13 from the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln over spring break. The students met with community leaders and had short interviews with attorneys, either for full-time positions upon graduation or for five-week summer clerkships.

"It really exceeded our expectations," said Sam Clinch, associate executive director of the state bar association. "I think a lot of the students hadn’t been to the central part of the state. One of the messages they got was that if you come out here, it won’t take you seven or eight years to become a partner. You’ll be on the partner track after a couple of years."

Clinch said the bar hopes to make the bus tours an annual tradition.

Back in South Dakota, Gilbertson expressed optimism that his state’s program would succeed. "If we can get 16 attorneys and show that this program works, we can go back to the Legislature and say, ‘Why don’t we make this permanent, as we have with the doctors and dentists?’ " he said.

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.