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Plains States Battle to Keep Lawyers in Rural Areas

With so few people to serve and recent graduates carrying loads of student debt, it just doesn't pay

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    Attorney Thomas Maul points out a feature in Frankfort Square in downtown Columbus, Neb., Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016. Tom Maul headed the Nebraska State Bar Association this past year and was instrumental in pushing the program to recruit lawyers to rural Nebraska.

    In Wheeler County, Nebraska, if you want a divorce, attorneys who can help you are nearly 50 miles away. 

    There's only one attorney, James McNally, in the north-central county, and he is its sole prosecutor. He's been there for 50 years and was at one point one of five attorneys. He has a side practice handling probate and estate services, but obviously can't take criminal defense cases. 

    There's a reason more lawyers don't land in places like Wheeler County, one of 11 counties that have no attorneys outside of elected prosecutors, he said. With so few people to serve and recent graduates carrying loads of student debt, it just doesn't pay, he said. 

    "They go where the money is, and that's not a small town," he said. 

    It's an issue that several Plains states tried to address years ago, but hasn't seemed to be solved — particularly in states such as Nebraska with vast stretches of sparsely populated land. In response, Nebraska has launched a program that targets rural high schools students, hoping to persuade them to return to their roots to practice law. 

    Modeled after the Rural Health Opportunities Program, which recruits rural students to become small-town doctors, Nebraska's program targets high-achieving students with plans to go to law school, offering full-tuition undergraduate scholarships to three rural Nebraska colleges: Chadron State College, the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Wayne State College. 

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    Participating students who maintain a 3.5 GPA and get a minimum LSAT score automatically will be accepted to the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln. 

    "The idea is: Let's start with the kids that have come from rural areas," said Thomas Maul, the immediate past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association who helped get the Rural Law Opportunities Program off the ground. "I really think it could be a game changer. No other state has this." 

    Like the medical program, the rural lawyer program does not include a requirement that the students practice in rural areas after law school. 

    "The rural health program reports about a 60 percent return on investment, meaning about 60 percent of the students return to rural areas to practice medicine," Maul said. "We hope to achieve similar results with this program." 

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    South Dakota is believed to be the first state to pay lawyers to practice in rural areas, starting in 2013 and offering an annual subsidy of 90 percent of the cost of a year at the University of South Dakota Law School to live and practice in rural communities. 

    Since the program began, it has placed 17 attorneys in rural counties that have a population of 10,000 or less, according to Suzanne Star, director of policy and legal services for the South Dakota State Court Administrator's Office. 

    "We consider it to be very successful," Star said. "We are now looking at legislation to expand the programs to municipalities in counties where there are more than 10,000 people, but do not have local access to an attorney." 

    But it hasn't been a panacea, Star acknowledged. Recent retirements and relocations left two South Dakota counties with no attorneys, eight counties with one lawyer and four counties with two. 

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    Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Iowa all run programs to help place recent law school grads in summer clerkships at rural firms as a way to get new lawyers into rural areas. But the states have learned introductions simply aren't enough. 

    In southwestern Iowa, some counties have only one or two attorneys — and they're rapidly approaching retirement age, said attorney Philip Garland, 71, the chairman of the Iowa State Bar Association's Rural Practice Committee. 

    He's been trying to get those aging attorneys to follow his lead and hire young associates, which can be expensive, and consider turning over, not selling, practices to young lawyers already saddled with loads of student debt. 

    "For the good of the community," he explains. "So, how do you think that's working? It's not working at all."

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