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The Push For Rural Practice

March 27, 2013, 9:55 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

The Push For Rural Practice

More than 70 attorneys will graduate from the University of South Dakota School of Law this spring. Clay Anderson is one of the few who plans to start his practice in a rural area.

"And it's the fear of going out on your own, hanging your own shingle and doing something like that," Anderson said.

The Iraq war veteran and third year law student is moving to Miller. There he hopes to help with business transactions and assist farmers. Anderson grew up in rural South Dakota and was encouraged by former Jerauld County State's Attorney Casey Bridgman to pursue law.

"I could see that lawyers aren't all bad all the time and you need them and they can help," Anderson said.

While Anderson has a mentor encouraging him to practice law in a small-town, most law school graduates aren't so lucky.

"They're expected just to make it with no support, no help, no mentorship and those are all things that Casey has provided for me. He's going to be that sounding board," Anderson said.

"There's a fear if you go to a rural county, especially if you're not from that county, it may not provide sufficient income early on in your practice to pay the bills, pay your school loans," Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson started noticing the lack of rural attorneys seven years ago.

"As I would visit various counties, the rural ones, it occurred to me that the attorneys in that rural area weren't there anymore. They had died, moved away or retired," Gilbertson said.

With Gilbertson's encouragement, the South Dakota State Bar started Project Rural Practice. It connects rural counties with law students and aspiring attorneys with rural communities.

"We've come down and talked to the law students, made them aware of the opportunities of practicing in a rural area,” Gilbertson said.

The South Dakota Legislature is also helping attract attorneys to rural counties as well. Lawmakers created a new program to help attorneys set up shop in a county with less than 10,000 people by giving them incentives to help pay the bills as long as they stay for five years.

"Because when you're starting up a law practice business can be a little slow at first. It might also assist with school loans because law school is not cheap anymore," Gilbertson said.

"It's worked out very well in the medical community because they'll go back and get a portion of their debt-load taken care of and repaid for medicine that's worked out very well," Anderson said.

While rural South Dakotans may be able to hire attorneys from Sioux Falls or Rapid City, Anderson says coming from a small town he knows the importance of having attorneys living in the community.

"I'm going to be invested in that community. If I make a mistake I can't run back to a Sioux Falls or Rapid City, everyone knows it," Anderson said.

Gilbertson started his career in Sisseton and knows the value of living in the town where you practice.

"Maybe I'm biased because I started my practice in a small town and I saw what other attorneys and myself could provide as far as community service. I was on the local fire department. An attorney 100 miles away living in Aberdeen isn't going to be there for the fires," Gilbertson said.

That's why South Dakota's top attorneys hope more and more young lawyers like Anderson choose the country instead of the city.

"There's a lot of things that have changed and if you're not out there and not a part of that community you just can't stay up on those things and you don't see how it impacts people," Anderson said.

Gilbertson adds that some counties are paying attorneys to drive 100 miles right now to do criminal defense work because there are no lawyers in their county.

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