Rural Areas have a Need for Justice: UND Program to Place Law Students into Clerkships in Counties with few or no Lawyers
Just as some North Dakota counties have very few people, some also have very few — or zero — lawyers.
A partnership of the state courts, bar association and University of North Dakota law school seeks to fix this "access to justice" problem with clerkships for law students in these counties.
Slope County in southwestern North Dakota is one of four counties with no attorneys.
Elsewhere in the region, Billings and Dunn counties only have one each, according to December 2013 data compiled by Laurie Guenther of the State Board of Law Examiners.
Six others each have one.
When someone doesn't have a local attorney to turn to, they can rack up costs in traveling to find one. Or, if there's only one attorney, he or she may be busy or have a conflict and not be able to serve everyone in need.
The single attorney in a county may feel like retiring but is unable to because they fill such a void in the community, said Judge Gail Hagerty, who wrote the proposal on the program for the courts and Legislature, which funded stipends for three clerkships this summer.
"They're kind of general practitioners who have served a real need in their communities," she said.
With the program, three law students will clerk with judges in rural counties.
"We decided we want to try to figure out a way to make law students, young people who are beginning their practice, aware of all the benefits of working in rural communities," Hagerty said.
In the proposal, she points out that the American Bar Association has taken up the rural courts issue on a national level.
The ABA's House of Delegates passed a resolution in 2012 urging states to support efforts to address the decline in rural lawyers and "address access to justice issues for residents in rural America."
If the program is successful, Hagerty wrote in her proposal, it could be adopted by state's attorney offices or private practitioners as well.
"We know that there are certain counties that are underserved and when you have an attorney in those counties ... when they're gone, there's really no successors," said Tony Weiler, executive director of the North Dakota State Bar Association.
"In the past, there used to be an attorney or two coming up behind them and now when they retire you might not have an attorney for miles and miles and miles," he said.
Weiler said this has become more of an issue lately with the trend of people leaving small towns for bigger communities.
"People are not out in South Heart, they're in Dickinson," he said. "They're not in Flasher, they're up in Bismarck."