Law Grads Not Responsible for Lack of Rural Lawyers

Ethan Bronner, “No Lawyers for Miles, So One Rural State Offers Pay,” New York Times.

Before I start ranting, let me first say that South Dakota’s plan to subsidize legal services for rural communities is the exact type of thing I’ve supported for a while now, much more so than subsidizing law schools, even cheap public ones in western states.

Now I start:

Rural Americans are increasingly without lawyers even as law school graduates are increasingly without jobs. Just 2 percent of small law practices are in rural areas, where nearly a fifth of the country lives, recent data show.

[South Dakota’s law] follow[s] a growing call for legal education to model itself on medical training to increase practical skills and employability. They also come amid intense debate on the future of the legal profession, and concerns about a possible glut of lawyers. In the past two years, only about 55 percent of law school graduates, many with large student loans to repay, have found full-time jobs as lawyers.

“In some areas we probably do have an oversupply of lawyers, but in others we have a chronic undersupply, and that problem is getting worse,” said David B. Wilkins, who directs a program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School. “In the 1970s, lawyers spent about half their time serving individuals and half on corporations. By the 1990s, it was two-thirds for corporations. So there has been a skewing toward urban business practice and neglect of many other legal needs.”

In other words, law graduates don’t move to rural communities because they aren’t trained to serve individuals instead of corporations. The law schools corrupted the profession, so moving those underemployed, indebted law graduates to a rural community would be like laboratory animals perishing in the wild after eco-terrorists liberate them. The fact that such a large percentage of lawyers live in urban areas supports this.

I’m dubious of this theory. One, as the big daddy of lawyer-per-capita calculations, I can tell you that the land need not be blanketed with a minimum number of lawyers per person. Demand for lawyers’ services is what counts. Two, human lawyers are a little more resilient than cutie-wootie fluffy bunnies in some cocaine addiction experiment at the U. For example, the rural lawyer the Times interviewed started working in 1949 and claims there were five or so other lawyers in Bennett County, SD at the time. Now he’s the last, and he’s surprised about it. Here’re a few questions the Times could’ve asked if it cared about the causes of rural legal deserts:

(1)  Why didn’t anyone replace the other lawyers as they retired since 1949? It’s not like there haven’t been any recessions that produced underemployed, indebted law graduates since then.

(2)  Did the lawyer interviewed by the Times, much less his former peers, ever hire any associates if the work was as plentiful as he claims?

(3)  What income does operating a small practice in rural America provide? Is it greater than what one could get in non-legal service sector jobs in a city?

(4)  What differences were there between rural and urban America in 1949 as opposed to 2013? What differences are there in law practice?

(5)  What are the employment outcomes of lawyers graduating from the University of South Dakota?

As you can imagine, my intuition on questions (1)-(4) suggest that there’s more going on than simply law school graduates being programmed only for corporate work. It’s unlikely that all the previous lawyers there retired since 2005, so if law school graduates from decades past didn’t want to practice there, why should we expect current law graduates to want to? If the last-lawyer-in-town says there’s work to be done, why didn’t he try to hire anyone to help him do it? Isn’t he loaded down with currency from his free monopoly?

The obvious source of replacement candidates would be South Dakota’s law school, and a quick analysis of its graduates’ outcomes suggests the question isn’t “Why won’t they open small practices?” but is instead, “Why won’t they open their small practices in Bennett County?

University of South Dakota Employment Type Distribution

The article gives a possible answer:

Thomas C. Barnett Jr., executive director of the State Bar of South Dakota, said … that in contrast to an earlier era, law graduates seemed increasingly drawn to urban life for the better shopping and dining as well as job opportunities for their spouses. In addition, he said, young graduates need mentors.

Another thought is that perhaps a lot of law school graduates, including those from South Dakota, are unmarried and aren’t too keen on their romantic prospects in a county with a population of 3,400, 35 percent of which is below the poverty line.

I suspect that today’s new lawyers aren’t much different from the medical professionals in the National Health Service Corps (who aren’t shamed by boomers into living in places they otherwise don’t want to live in). Like most people in their twenties, they prefer urban life. If that means they’d rather work at Wal-Mart (or Wall Drug) than open a small practice, that’s their right. If you don’t like that, then do as South Dakota is doing and pay!

8 comments

  1. Favorite Line: “so moving those underemployed, indebted law graduates to a rural community would be like laboratory animals perishing in the wild after eco-terrorists liberate them.

  2. As the last Legally Obligated podcast mentioned, “There is no market if you don’t have paying clients.” I doubt that a county with 3,400 people – and a poverty rate of 35 percent – could support one licensed attorney. Now, if that same lawyer owes a *mere* $95K in combined student debt, he probably needs to make at least $95K per year – in order to make a decent living.

    1. “Now, if that same lawyer owes a *mere* $95K in combined student debt, he probably needs to make at least $95K per year – in order to make a decent living.”

      You make a very good point, but their is also cost of starting a business one must take into account when ‘hanging out their own shingle.’ The career services office at my school was pushing the hang out your own shingle option–hard–biggest the bigger firms were not hiring. So, they brought in some recent grads who had started their own practice to describe their experiences.

      My take away from that was this; their’s not enough anti-anxiety meds to get me through the first year or two of being a new lawyer AND starting a business–even if you go on the cheap, buy office supplies off Craigslist, use your UCC and like materials from law school, borrow whatever you can from former classmates and other professionals, and rent the time share office space.

  3. Bennett County, SD is entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation, of which writing in “The New York Times” last May, Nicholas Kristof said, “Pine Ridge is a poster child of American poverty and of the failures of the reservation system for American Indians in the West.” , Consequently, the Times story on the dearth of rural lawyers picks an atypical county to make its case for rural lawyer subsidies.

    I won’t disagree, however, that government assistance is essential where poverty is endemic and the cost of legal services is outside the financial reach of most citizens.

    Arguably, however, as it’s more a ‘chicken or egg’ proposition, I rather doubt that “law schools corrupted the profession.” More likely, it’s the other way around.

    In sum, besides the well-established need for public legal aid, the problem with subsidizing the availability of legal services via private lawyers is that this merely treats a symptom and not the root cause, which is the out-of-control, unconscionably high cost of a law school education.

    1. Don’t believe everything you read on Wiki. Only the northwest section of Bennett county is located within the Pine Ridge Reservation. The town of Martin is not on res land. Bennett county is completely surrounded by two Indian reservations though and quite isolated, that is true.

  4. “Here’re a few questions the Times…”

    This, sir, is the NEW YORK TIMES!

    They don’t ask questions they may not like the answers to.

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