Lacking lawyers: Attorneys are scarce in rural ND while business keeps growing
GRAND FORKS — Even though there are a lot of lawyers out there, not enough of them seem to be gravitating toward small towns in North Dakota, and the law community is setting out to change that.
With an average of only 1.3 lawyers per 1,000 people in rural areas of the state, University of North Dakota Law School Dean Kathryn Rand and other lawyers in the state have started a program to get more graduates to work there.
“One of the most important things that we’re trying to accomplish from the program is to give students a realistic idea of what rural practice is,” Rand said. “We also want to provide networking opportunities for them so they can make connections in those rural communities and throughout our state that would make them more likely to succeed.”
The program will open internship slots in small towns for students to spend a summer working and learning about being a lawyer in a rural area. The program’s first participants have not been chosen yet, but will work this summer in Rugby and New Rockford.
In the last decade, the number of practicing, resident lawyers in North Dakota has been steadily increasing along with the number of UND law school graduates who get jobs in the state. According to the American Bar Association, the number of resident, active attorneys in the state has gone from 1,297 in 2003 to 1,560 in 2013.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1,268,011 lawyers in the United States, and only 0.1 percent of them live and work in North Dakota as of 2013. Considering the state’s population makes up only 0.2 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, it makes sense.
But they’re all living and working in metropolitan areas.
Of the state’s 357 towns, only 85 have lawyers with registered firm addresses, according to data from the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Rand said it’s also important to factor in lawyers looking to retire and the fact that a single lawyer in a small town can’t represent clients who have conflicts with each other, such as in a divorce.
Tony Weiler, executive director of the State Bar Association, said anecdotal knowledge among the legal community says that the legal needs of citizens in rural areas aren’t being met.
“We know there are more lawyers in the state right now, but they’re not moving into small towns,” he said.
North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said he has seen estates belonging to people who died 70 years ago get probated because oil companies require a clear title for mineral rights in western North Dakota.
“I have to ask why they weren’t probated in the beginning, which could be about money … or could be the lack of a lawyer to perform those services,” he said.
As of May 2012, the Grand Forks area alone had an average of 2.4 lawyers per 1,000 people. Areas with similar populations, like Bismarck and Fargo, also have more lawyers and northwestern Minnesota has 1.6 — all of which are higher than the ratio in rural North Dakota.
Boom in the west
The oil boom has also contributed to the need for more lawyers in the western part of the state.
“We’re hearing increasingly the lawyers, particularly in Bismarck, Minot and Williston, have so much business that they cannot take on more clients,” Rand said.
Beginning in 2007, Dickinson and Williston both saw sharp increases in the number of people living there.
“The crisis is going to get worse,” Rand said.
According to data from the North Dakota Supreme Court, counties directly affected by the boom have more lawyers: Williams County has 58 and McKenzie has 10. Other surrounding rural areas have far fewer; Golden Valley, Dunn and Billings counties have one each and Burke County has none.
VandeWalle said his hometown in Divide County has only one lawyer for the entire county who has been doing more work in the oilfields than smaller, local cases.
“You’re looking at rather vast expanses of territory for one lawyer to cover,” he said.
Rand said these single, small law offices are having to push clients to surrounding small-town law firms, creating a market for newly licensed lawyers to start their own practices there.
“This is where the jobs are,” she said. “We’re trying to help folks see this is where the opportunities are.”
How can recent law school graduates be expected to move to a small town and start a firm on their own?
With a lot of mentoring and assistance from UND, according to Rand, who said that while mentors are available for new lawyers at a firm, it’s a lot harder for those who open their own practices or take over an existing one right away.
And she’s got a solution for that.
“We will have a formal mentoring program where we pair newly licensed attorneys with more senior attorney mentors in our state, and we’re taking advantage of technology for them to connect,” Rand said.
VandeWalle said there is a lot of opportunity in rural areas for lawyers to turn a profit, but mentors are extremely important because there’s a higher chance for malpractice when a firm is opened up on its own without a system of checks and balances.