RUGBY—Opportunities abound to practice law in rural North Dakota. The challenge has been persuading young law students to seize those opportunities.
The State Bar Association of North Dakota, University of North Dakota School of Law and North Dakota court system have responded with a pilot project that this summer has two law students working for pay as clerks for rural district judges. The program is designed to expose students to the law and lifestyle in communities of fewer than 15,000 people.
"During the summer, the students get immersed in these communities and learn first hand what the practice of law in some of these more rural communities would be like," said Brad Parrish, assistant dean of the UND law school. "The hope is that some students would learn about these opportunities, gain some experience and decide this is an avenue that they could pursue after graduation."
Once back on campus this fall, student law clerks may continue working for the judges for academic credit through long-distance communication.
Josh Wolfe of Esmond, who is entering his third year at the UND law school, has been clerking in the Northeast Judicial District's Rugby office since mid-May. He has been writing briefs and memos and following Judge John McClintock as he presides over court proceedings in Pierce, McHenry and Rolette counties. McClintock also assists in the seven other counties in the Northeast District as needed.
"He's really been exposed to a lot in the court system. We have had a very busy schedule," McClintock said. "If you came here as a young attorney, the door is wide open, and you could have, I think, a very successful practice."
Wolfe said it was a law conference on issues of rural justice that got him wondering if a rural practice might be for him. Having spent his college years in Fargo and Grand Forks, he felt he needed to get into the rural area to really settle that question.
"You have to think about your future and if you can see yourself in a rural community," Wolfe said. "It would be something I would be interested in. I don't mind the slower pace that a small town like Rugby has to offer."
While the community may be slower paced, the court schedule is not.
"The court docket has been pretty full and lively," Wolfe said. "The same cases that I think you will see in Fargo or Minot, you are going to see in Rugby and the surrounding communities."
McClintock said it may be one of the biggest eye-openers for students that law in a small town is just as dynamic as a big city practice. It can be more diverse, with more general law and less specialization, he said.
Wolfe also is discovering what it is like to be the only judge in a community, seeing mostly the same small group of attorneys in the courtroom. Then there's the need to eliminate any hint of partiality in settings in which the judge may be acquainted with the parties in a case.
The other UND student in a clerk position through the pilot project is Jeanne Williams, a Nevada native who is clerking for Judge James Hovey in the Southeast Judicial District. Hovey serves Eddy, Foster, Wells and Griggs counties and assists in Barnes.
"We are experiencing quite a shortage of attorneys in these small areas, and it's forcing us to bring attorneys in from larger areas. It significantly increases the cost of litigation," Hovey said.
In the four counties he serves, there are only four private attorneys and they are advanced in age. Often residents are forced to go out of the area to larger communities for their legal needs, Hovey said.
South Central District Judge Gail Hagerty of Bismarck said she had worked with a task force that held hearings in western North Dakota on energy impact, and the message that came through was the lack of attorneys to meet a growing workload, particularly in oil and gas law. Then president of the bar association, she had worked with the law school to develop the Rural Justice pilot project to get students thinking about small town practices.
"There are some benefits for them in terms of having opportunities to build a business," Hagerty said. "There are opportunities with regard to raising families and becoming a vital part of a community."
If there's a disappointing aspect to the pilot project, it's the limited number of judges and students participating, Hovey said. The state Legislature provided funding for up to three students, but only two matches occurred in the voluntary program.
Hovey said he would like to see the program expanded to enable rural attorneys to bring in students. Scholarships to rural students also might help because those students may be more likely to choose a small-town practice, he said.
Hovey returned to his hometown of New Rockford after practicing law for 15 years in Grand Forks. McClintock returned to his hometown of Rugby after working in Minneapolis.
Parrish said roughly half the school's students come from North Dakota, often from larger cities, but a significant number come from small towns in North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada.
"Overall, I think our numbers of students from North Dakota going to law school anywhere are going down," Parrish said. "Right now, the important next step for us is just to give the students we have here exposure to those communities. We could recruit more students, and if those students don't see going into rural law practice as a viable career alternative for them, it's not going to meet those needs. It's letting the students know this is a career opportunity."