Last September we told you about South Dakota’s Project Rural Practice, which wanted to provide incentives to attorneys for practicing in rural areas. And South Dakota is now proud to announce that initiative has been signed into law.
South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson applauds the bill and informs us that this bill makes South Dakota the first state in the nation to have legislation drafted specifically to assist recruit attorneys into rural parts of the state. South Dakota: Pioneers since the Oregon Trail (that’s actually not true. South Dakota has been so historically lame your baby sister couldn’t even die of dysentery as your oxen drowned while you were fording the river).
South Dakota has been a pioneer in reactionary legislation, though. About two weeks ago they became the first state in the nation to enact a law explicitly authorizing school employees to carry guns on the job. So maybe that will create some work for the new rural South Dakota lawyer.
Before you pack your bags and head out West (or North if you're in big hat country, or East if you're in grunge music country), let’s talk program specifics. You can read the full text of the bill here, but we’ll go ahead and hit the highlights for you.
This program will only be available to counties with a population of less than 10,000, of which (according to Wikipedia), South Dakota has 49. Interested counties will have to apply for the program to the Unified Judicial System of South Dakota, which will consider the county’s ability to support and sustain an attorney, including, among other things: the demographics of the county, age and number of the county bar, economic development in the county, proximity to other counties receiving assistance, and evaluation of the attorney seeking assistance. The county will also have to agree to pay 35% of the incentive payment.
The incentive payment is 5 equal annual installments, equivalent to 90% of the University of South Dakota’s School of Law resident tuition and fees, as determined on July 1 of this year. Current School of Law annual resident tuition and fees are $13,288, likely to increase before the next academic year, as tuition typically does. Increase aside, 90% of that is $11,959.20.
What do you have to do to get this not quite 12k a year, aside from being licensed in South Dakota and practicing law in a county of less than 10,000 people in South Dakota? You have to agree to practice law in that rural county for at least five years. You can also probably expect to hear something like, “Oh, so you can commit to Moody County for five years but not to me?!” from your significant other.
Other things to take note of? The law doesn’t allow more than 16 attorneys to participate in the program, and no new attorneys may be added after July 1, 2017. So you better apply soon.
If you’re worried about the fund running out of money to pay you, be one of the first to apply. The bill set aside $475,000 from the general fund for this program. Of the $11,959.20 the fund should pay you annually, the county you’ll call home is responsible for 35% ($4,185.72). The Unified Judicial System is authorized to receive another 15% ($1,793.88) from the State Bar. That leaves $5,988.60 to be paid by the Judicial System, assuming they take the Bar’s money, which they likely will. Multiply that by 5 and you get $29,943. That leaves enough money for to pay for 15.8 attorneys, based on current tuition. And don’t think that if you’re unlucky .8 person you can just quit a year early. If you breach your agreement under the program, you have to pay all the incentive money back, or risk disciplinary action from the State Bar.
But maybe we're being short sighted. Perhaps the budget does balance. All that's required is for USD's tuition to drop a little bit, in turn decreasing the support provided to each grad. It only needs to decrease 1.27%. So let's just see USD's historic tuition rates ...It's $12,340 this year, was $11,208 last year, and $7,498 back in 2004. So, tuition has gone up 10.1% since last year, and 65.6% over 8 years, so tuition is likely to be somewhere in the range of $17,000 in 2017 and $26,000 by the time the 5 years are up for the last entries into the program. Ugh...
As well intentioned as South Dakota's program is, one attorney for every 3 rural counties is hardly going to provide some great new access for the underserved, and there's probably going to be a budget shortfall later on. It's a classic case of too little, too little.
At least we haven't heard on strict requirements on what it means to practice law. $12,000 a year to turn away clients in the Badlands doesn't sound like the worse thing in the world.