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 During an open forum at Black Hills State University earlier this month, S.D. Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson discussed the road that led to a recently passed bill providing a stipend for law school graduates to practice in rural areas for five years.
Many of South Dakota’s rural Americans lack full-time legal services as more and more rural attorneys retire without a new crop of attorneys to take their place.  The lack of rural representation is not a new problem and it’s getting progressively worse; however, a new pilot program aims to lure recent law school graduates to practice in the state’s less populated areas.

During an open forum at Black Hills State University earlier this month, S.D. Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson discussed the road that led to a recently passed bill providing a stipend for law school graduates to practice in rural areas for five years. The pilot program, which began July 1, gives 16 lawyers more than $13,000 a year for five years to practice in a rural area that has been identified as being underrepresented. The program is modeled after a national one that for decades has been placing doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and physician assistants in South Dakota’s rural locations, Gilbertson said. Thirty-five percent of the stipend comes from the county, 50 percent from the state and 15 percent from the state bar association. “I am hopeful this will also work,” Gilbertson told the audience. “I can’t guarantee that we will be successful, but I can guarantee that if we do nothing, then we will fail.”

Gilbertson, who returned to his hometown of Sisseton after law school, said there has been a decline in rural lawyers since World War II veterans who earned their law degrees with the GI Bill started retiring. “At the end of WWII we saw a huge migration of people back into the state. With the GI Bill they enrolled in law school and after graduating and passing the bar many would return to their hometowns to practice,” he said. “In the late 70s and early 80s they started to age out of the profession.”

Gilbertson illustrated the need for rural representation noting that 65 percent of South Dakota’s lawyers practice in four of the state’s largest counties. Currently there are two counties with no lawyers, 14 with only one and seven with only two, he said. Attorneys from larger communities travel more than 100 miles at times to spend a day or even a few hours in rural areas, Gilbertson said noting that lawyers don’t get the full feel for a community if they don’t live there.

The problem is one that nearly every state in the country is facing, he said. In Georgia, 70 percent of lawyers practice in the Atlanta area. In Arizona, 94 percent are in Phoenix and Tucson. In Texas, 83 percent represent the areas of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, Gilbertson said.

South Dakota is the first state to take steps to address the ongoing problem. Many states are waiting to see how successful the program is in South Dakota, said Gilbertson, who has been a leader in the effort.

Gilbertson started talking about the problem nearly a decade ago after he noticed that many of the rural attorneys he once knew were no longer practicing and no one seemed to be replacing them. He spent every opportunity he could speaking with legislators about the desperate need to do something. In one speech, he told them that South Dakota was headed down a road where “justice for all” would not be provided.

He’s hoping this new program will prevent that from happening.

Gilbertson was at BHSU for the Supreme Court’s September/October 2013 Term Session.