Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

Planting the Seeds and Getting into the Field: The Role of Law Schools in Ensuring Access to Justice in Rural Communities

Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

Planting the Seeds and Getting into the Field: The Role of Law Schools in Ensuring Access to Justice in Rural Communities

Article excerpt

Public law schools in rural states have a strong incentive to undertake curricular changes and activities that will encourage students to enter rural practice. Each state has a duty to ensure its residents have access to justice no matter where they live. By encouraging law students to enter rural practice, law schools can work toward ensuring each person's legal rights are protected. This article provides a description of the challenges law schools face in encouraging current students and alumni to consider practicing law in rural communities and provides detailed suggestions for overcoming them.


Legal education suffers from a lack of awareness and knowledge of the rural experience. (1) Law students and scholars focus less on rural perspectives and challenges than on their urban and suburban counterparts. (2) This lack of interest correspondingly affects the level of legal service provided to rural areas in the United States. (3) We have witnessed first-hand--as lawyers and professors of the legal academy at the University of North Dakota School of Law ("UND")--the access to justice issues faced by residents living in rural areas and the challenges faced by law schools trying to address them. From the North, we have witnessed South Dakota pass legislation to encourage new and experienced attorneys to move to more rural communities in the state to provide much needed access to justice and establish long-standing community ties. UND, like the University of South Dakota, is the only law school in the state and has increasingly attracted students from outside of the state because of the opportunity to gain a good education at a much discounted price in a community where the cost of living is low. The challenge UND faces is preparing and encouraging a higher percentage of graduates to stay in the state and replace retiring attorneys in smaller communities. This article will discuss the problem, including the layers of challenges facing rural communities without access to justice, and propose concrete and specific ways that law schools can effectively meet these challenges.



We have a crisis. As of 2013, North Dakota had 1,560 active, resident attorneys and an estimated population of 723,393. (4) South Dakota had 1,905 active, resident attorneys and an estimated population of 844,877. (5) Wyoming had 1,681 and Montana 3,046 active, resident attorneys and estimated populations of 582,658 and 1,015,165 respectively. (6) There is an average of only 1.3 lawyers for every 1,000 people in rural areas of North Dakota. (7) Recently, the Nebraska State Bar Association reported that "12 counties in the state have no lawyers," leading individuals who need a lawyer to have to travel up to 200 miles to find one. (8) Although the overall number of attorneys in North Dakota has been increasing in recent years, the attorneys are not equally dispersed across the state. Most of them are living in metropolitan areas leaving large sections of the state without access to justice. Of the 357 towns in North Dakota, the North Dakota Supreme Court reports that only eighty-five have an attorney. (9) According to the Rural Lawyer, "the human population of North Dakota tends to be spread a bit thin, but when 21 counties have fewer than 4 attorneys (4 counties have no lawyers, 8 counties only have 1), access to justice is problematic and a lawyer's retirement can have far-reaching consequences." (10) Attorneys in South Dakota are in a similar situation. As of 2011, sixty-five percent of South Dakota's attorneys were located in four cities: Aberdeen, Pierre, Rapid City, and Sioux Falls. (11) The State Bar of South Dakota has stated that six counties have no attorneys and nineteen have around one to three each. (12)

The access to justice problem caused by the decreasing number of rural attorneys is exacerbated by the increasing average age of attorneys. …

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