ALPS Executive Vice President, Chris Newbold, caught up with former State Bar of South Dakota President and business transaction and estate planning attorney, Pat Goetzinger, at the 2018 South Dakota Annual Meeting in Sioux Falls. Pat reflects on an initiative that began under his tenure as Bar President six years ago called Project Rural Practice. (see this blog post from 2014 detailing the fledgling project) In many rural areas in the state, there was not access to an attorney within a 100 mile radius. The goal of the project is to increase access to attorneys by recruiting South Dakota attorneys to rural communities, providing them with support once they get there, mentoring them, giving them every opportunity that every other lawyer would have in a large law firm or a medium law firm in a populated area.
ALPS In Brief, The ALPS Risk Management Podcast, is usually hosted by ALPS Risk Manager, Mark Bassingthwaighte. This episode is hosted by Chris Newbold, ALPS Executive Vice President.
All right. Hi, this is Chris Newbold. And I am guest host today for the ALPS in Brief podcast. I’m here from beautiful Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And I’m here with Pat Goetzinger. Pat is a business transaction and estate planning attorney from Rapid City and a former, past president of the State Bar of South Dakota. And we’re here to talk about a very innovative project that launched under Pat’s direction and he’s continued to be involved with for a number of years and it deals with delivery of legal services, particularly to rural areas of South Dakota. And the program is called Project Rural Practice. And so, Pat thanks for being here with us today. And give us just an overview of what Project Rural Practice is and what you were hoping to achieve when this idea came to light.
Well, Project Rural Practice came to mind as I was preparing for my year as State President of the … State Bar President for the State of South Dakota. And really touched on the needs that rural communities have in recruiting lawyers back to Main Street in rural South Dakota. It’s very personal to me, because my mentor Fred Cozad was a Main Street lawyer in my hometown of Martin, South Dakota and for the past 20 years Fred had been the solo practitioner in Martin before he embarked on his retirement and left Martin with no attorney on Main Street in South Dakota. And as we looked across the landscape in South Dakota several other small communities were suffering that kind of future.
And our Chief Justice, David Gilbertson had spoke about it very eloquently and he really planted the seed for what now is known as Project Rural Practice, which came about in the fall of 2011 during my term as State Bar President. We formed a task force. Couldn’t think of a better person to be my chair of the task force and me predecessor, one of my predecessors was State Bar President Bob Morris. And with the help of Bob and our task force we put together a very active and vibrant program to bring forward Project Rural Practice in South Dakota.
And as we went around the state, told the story about what Project Rural Practice is and recruiting lawyers to rural communities, providing them with support once they get there, mentoring them, giving them every opportunity that every other lawyer would have in a large law firm or a medium law firm in a populated area, it really became apparent that there was interest in this program to the point where the Chief Justice, the State Bar, UJS and the law school came together to draft legislation to locate a funding source through the state government and provide an incentive payment to these young lawyers that wanted to locate their practice in a rural community.
And during the 2012 legislative session we were very successful in getting a funding source that was built on match donations, match contributions from the local communities that would benefit from the legal services, the State Bar Foundation pitching in some money as well. And that’s what sold the legislature. That’s what sold the governor. The Chief Justice’s vision in developing that program, which became known as the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program was bringing this program forward into a very meaningful way to attract lawyers to Main Street, South Dakota.
So, let’s kind of reset the stage here. So, the problem then is that you were working to address is obviously South Dakota is a state that has geographic complexities with population centers and the challenge was that when a retiring lawyer in a small town retires that potentially creates an access to justice issue.
In that, let’s just call it, 100 mile radius around that particular area. And that was the issue that you were really kind of working to address to make sure that legal services could be delivered in rural areas of South Dakota.
That’s exactly right, Chris. And the idea behind Project Rural Practice was to attract lawyers to those vast areas of rural South Dakota that didn’t have lawyers to serve the individuals or didn’t have lawyers ready to step into very vibrant rural practices for lawyers on the verge of retiring. And our Chief Justice was eloquent in describing that as islands of justice with a vast sea of justice denied in these rural areas. And the Chief, coming from a small town as well, driving through South Dakota Main Streets to and from the courts’ sessions, we just saw that Main Street, South Dakota in rural areas was having a difficult time attracting lawyers and we needed to do something about it. And Project Rural Practice kicked it off. The Rural Attorney Recruitment Program provided a funding source to it and we were able to get funding for what I call the Sweet 16 attorneys that we were capable of getting funding for to attract to these rural communities.
Okay. So, the thing that I find so interesting about it and I think it’s a testament to just the relationship element of South Dakota generally is the collaboration, right. So, you have the Bar Association that understands that there are lawyers that we need to be able to serve on the access to justice front. You have the legislature that comes in and becomes a partner in this from a funding perspective. So, you got the State Bar Foundation, you got the legislature, and then you have even county governments saying it’s important for us a foundational core of our community to have a lawyer or lawyers and legal services available to the residents in our particular community. I mean, talk about the … that’s unique, right, to be able to kind of get the collaboration going, to be able to basically come together to address a problem that if solved helps the greater community.
And that collaboration came through in how we built the task force. And it wasn’t just a lawyer problem, it was a community problem. We approached the county commissioner’s organization and put their executive director on our task force. We approached the school associations and put their director on our task force. The same way with the municipal league. The same way with the retailers association and the local chamber of commerces. Because everybody recognized what an economic engine having a lawyer on Main Street in a rural town would be. So, they wanted to be part of helping solve that problem. And that coalition of support was important to the legislature, because their local legislatures were being visiting by the community leaders that were part of this coalition, that were part of the group that said we need to support rural lawyers in Main Street, South Dakota.
I call it the big three. The big three is the State Bar, the UJS: Unified Judicial System, with Chief Justice and his team, and then the USD School of Law. The big three kind of oversaw this coalition, drove the work forward, helped develop the criteria for qualifying communities and qualifying attorneys to participate in this program to receive the incentive payments. And what was really fascinating about this incentive payment deal was we were the first in the nation program that a state government funded support for lawyers. Across the landscape state government will provide funding for medical professionals, dental, veterinary professionals. A variety of other professions receive some sort of funding from state government for attracting those professions to small town communities, but lawyers had never received that same kind of support and had never received that across the landscape nationwide until our program came along.
And to again speak to the coalition, the program to fund 16 lawyers needed a total sum of one million dollars in funding sources to make the annual $15,000 payment for a five your period to our Sweet 16 attorneys as they were recruiting. So, the math worked out to say we need a million dollars. How are we going to get a million dollars?
Well, the Chief to his credit found a funding source in state government for a half a million that was based on the other half a million coming from a match contribution from the local community and they had to put in 35 percent, so they had to raise that 35 percent to match the incentive payment by the state government and then the State Bar Foundation kicked in the other 15 percent. So, we were able to tell the story that we are active participants in it. The communities are active participants in it and the state, it’s important enough to you to support rural communities by kicking in the other half a million dollars and then those sources come together to provide the annual incentive payments to the Sweet 16 that are recruited for this program. So, we’ve got this program.
So, we’ve got the program right? So, you got the concept. You got the coalition. You got the funding and now it’s time to go out and recruit your Sweet 16. How does that go?
Again, that’s a team effort that’s comprised of the State Bar Strategic Planning Director. Our first one was Francy Foral and now it’s Beth Overmoe, in partnership with UJS and the point person for Chief Justice in the UJS is Suzie Starr. And those two individuals literally go from county to county with qualifying communities making the case to county commissioners, city councilmen, education boards, to say we got this program. We got lawyers that are interested in coming in to the community, do you want to participate? And more often than not those communities say yes and then it’s a match program to match up the lawyers available for the communities that have the need for it. And most of these matches are very easily made, because you got kids coming home. You got kids that want to be in a certain part of … and I say kids … young lawyers wanting to be in certain parts of South Dakota, close to where they grew up or close to what they want by way of a lifestyle.
And then we rely upon the law school to provide background training and through their placement program for lawyers that are already out or lawyers that are coming through, every year. And it’s just an amazing scene when the Chief Justice goes down to the law school and meets with any law student that has an interest in rural practice. And they’re literally lined up out the door wanting to meet with the Chief Justice who personally makes the case for participating in the Sweet 16 program.
And over the course of the past five years that we’ve had this program, we filled the first Sweet 16 round of participants, so they’re all filled and now we got funding again about two years ago in the state legislature to expand the program for another round of Sweet 16 lawyers. And the background for that was we saw how popular this program was, how fast the Sweet 16 was filling up and then we also saw still vacuums throughout the state that still didn’t have rural communities served, retiring lawyers with successors.
And then we also saw some glitches in where we were with regard to communities that qualified or should qualify, but because they were in a populated county, were disqualified from participating in the program. So, through this next round of legislative activity the Chief, again to his credit, with the State Bar, Tom Barnett, drafted legislation. We call it the Wall and Faith Bill. Where Wall, South Dakota in Pennington County, because they’re 65 miles or 45 miles from Rapid need their own lawyer, but because they’re in Pennington County, they don’t qualify, because Pennington County is not a qualifying county. And Faith, South Dakota in Meade County, but 70 miles, 90 miles from the county seat, they have a need for rural lawyers, but they don’t qualify because they were in Meade County. So, we tweaked the definition of a qualifying community to get Faith and Wall and I think Groton was also affected by it positively. So, we brought those communities in to give them the opportunity to recruit lawyers to their communities and help fill out the next category of Sweet 16 attorneys to qualify for this program.
So, we’re well on our way to filling that up. And we got a couple of different things that have grown up out of this program to continue the momentum and to help recruit lawyers to fill the next round of Sweet 16. Two of those items, one of them relates to funding. And we knew that the State Bar had a 150,000 dollar commitment for the first round of Sweet 16 lawyers. It would have another 150,000 dollar commitment for the next round, so a total of 300,000 dollars coming from the State Bar Foundation. And being a conservative State Bar Foundation, we wanted to have that money in the bank. We wanted to make sure that money was … we had a good start on it. It was in the bank. It was accruing interest. It was growing and we wouldn’t be stressed when the dollars were to be paid out on an incremental basis annually for these participants.
So, we went actually a donor came to us, and God rest his soul, he was the motivation for the Project Rural Practice. He was my mentor. Fred Cozad came forward and said Pat we love the program. We love what it’s doing. We like the idea that it’s going to find my successor in Martin. Let me write a check to the State Bar Foundation to pick up half the cost of these … of the State Bar’s commitment, provided that you raise the other half from the State Bar membership. And so we called it the Cozad Challenge.
And because of Fred’s generosity, we announced the Cozad Challenge at a State Bar meeting a couple of years ago. That day we had one donor come forward and already match 25,000 dollars. Wrote the check that day and we were off and running. And we filled that challenge up about two months ahead of the end of the term, we had filled it up and then went over the challenge request. So we banked more money than we had anticipated needing to raise for that program. But it energized the Bar, there was a huge response among the Bar to respond to the Cozad Challenge. And that was a very fun experience for the Bar, the Bar Foundation to participate in. It’s a great success story about how to raise money in an environment where it’s otherwise tight, but you get the right project, the right package, the right donor, the right message, and it all came together and it worked fabulously. So-
So, talk for just a minute or two about what the lawyer expectation is, right. So, you do have sometimes the young lawyers, sometimes a little bit older who are going back to their community. What’s their commitment? What’s their expectation kind of financially or otherwise?
Yeah. The commitment, so the lawyer that desires to participate in the Sweet 16 program needs to be accepted by the community, because the community is going to pitch in for their incentive payment. It’s a 15,000 dollar annual incentive payment for five years. And they have to sign a contract. The community signs a contract. The State Bar Foundation, the UJS, and the lawyer sign a contract saying here are my expectations to provide practice in this community for the next five years and I agree to maintain malpractice insurance and do all these things that lawyers do in order to open an office and maintain a presence in that community.
Just as an example, we filled the Martin, South Dakota position that was vacated by Fred with a young lawyer who had signed her contract as a first year law student. And she got through law school. We delayed her start date due to the fact that she had a child. But, she passed the Bar. We just had the community open house to welcome her to Martin to take over as Fred’s successor and participate in the Sweet 16 program. And I’m happy to say that my hometown of Martin for many years only had one lawyer and for several years had no lawyer, now has three lawyers that call Martin home full time. So, we’re restocking rural America and Project Rural Practice is helping do that. There’s practice opportunities in private practice, in court appointments, in being a state’s attorney, deputy state’s attorney, city attorney, the attorney for the school board. Just any variety of things that come along in a rural community that give the opportunity to the young lawyer to build their practice and make a good living as a lawyer in small town South Dakota.
The other program that we have that brings the lawyers into the process and this was just unveiled last summer and it’s a first in the nation kind of program of its type, and that is we started a rural community or rural practice internship program for law students that want to participate in a rural practice setting while still in law school to see if its something they like and to build a connection with a lawyer that may be looking for somebody to-
Build the pipeline?
… build the pipeline. And we developed that program last year. And we had talked about it. It’s a brain child of Bob Morris, who is my co-chair now on Project Rural Practice, but he said we got to provide this internship opportunity to give kids the chance to come into these communities, see what it’s like and to give the lawyer the opportunity to train their successor or recruit their successor.
And last summer was the first summer that we launched that program. And the reason we picked last summer was because we got funding for it. And what we wanted to do is we wanted to offer the law firm, the small town lawyer the opportunity to be reimbursed the cost of providing this opportunity to the law student. And we said we’ll pay up to half of what you pay this law student for their internship over summer capped at a certain dollar amount and it’s around 2,000, I think we capped it at. But we said you got to pay them a real wage. Got to give them real files to work on. You got to monitor them and you got to report to see how this is going.
It was welcomed with open arms. We got four or five students participate last year in that program and one of them took over the practice for a lawyer that is retiring. So, we filled that position and it worked very nicely there. We exposed several law students to the opportunity and several of them are going to move into filling the next round of Sweet 16 by finding a community that has room for them and that they want to practice in. This year we got a little bit of a late start. We didn’t have the lawyers waiting in the wings or they weren’t prepared, but we’re in the process of setting the stage for next year to get that program ramped up. And again, the funding source is sitting there, through the generosity of the South Dakota Bar Foundation. Again, we have the opportunity and we’re very fortunate to have Bar members earmark funds for Project Rural Practice, for the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program and we collect those dollars and use them for support of the internship program, as well as to help pay the stipend that goes back to the lawyer participating in the program.
So, another exciting development that is the brain child of South Dakota and directly hits on how we’re getting law students to fill these rural community needs.
So, it’s just … two final questions before we wrap up. Where is the program today, right? So, the Sweet 16, those were all filled, right?
You have funding for another 16, are those all filled as well?
No, they’re not all filled. We got maybe four commitments. We’ve got several contracts pending. So, we’re working on the next round of 16. I think we’ll get the report this week. I think we got 18 total with maybe four contracts pending in small town communities and several others that are on the cusp of tipping over and saying yup we’re ready to sign a contract. So, it’s just a function of timing and candidates to fill those positions.
The other … we have this cycle, this rhythm of Project Rural Practice and the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program and one of the highlights of it is the spring meeting of Project Rural Practice in Pierre, South Dakota hosted by Chief Justice Gilbertson. And when the Chief Justice invites you to lunch, you better show up. And these Project Rural Practice candidates and participants do. And it’s an opportunity to spend a day with the Chief, have an educational component, celebrate the success of the program, talk about the future, what can we do to help. But it’s a reunion of sorts that we have with the Chief hosting it every April in Pierre and seeing all of these alumni come together and talk about their experiences and how can we make the program better, how can we support you better. What do we do in the future and all the things that go along with coming up with new ideas to keep this thing rolling and it’s just a fun deal.
Pat, when it’s all said and done, what in your mind is the ultimate impact? What’s been the result and the impact on that?
I think it’s absolutely the delivery of access to justice to people that otherwise wouldn’t get it or would be delayed in getting it and exacerbating their legal issues and legal problems. I also think that the direct impact on the economic viability of the rural community is directly tied to this kind of a program, because you got lawyers occupying Main Street, drawing people into town. Providing legal services adds to the tax base, adds to the sales tax revenue base, keeps the money local, lets that money turn over locally. And you’re providing careers for 16, up to 32 individuals who have families that help build that community and sustain that rural community.
I just think it’s an absolute success story in terms of economic development on a micro level in rural communities that has tangible results day in and day out with those lawyers sitting in those offices on Main Street. It’s noteworthy that our gubernatorial candidates point to their platform of reviving rural American and each one of them talking about Project Rural Practice as being a bedrock for how that gets done. So, we really feel fortunate that it’s had the successful run it has had. We’ve got opportunities to make difference in additional spots, to fill up on the next round of Sweet 16. But, it’s a program that I think is paying huge dividends to the state, to the community, to the Bar and what better way to give back than that.
That’s awesome. Well, it’s … congratulations to you. Congratulations to the State Bar, the Foundation, the communities. I know that a lot of folks, this has also been an issue that received some national attention in the New York Times, the ABA and many states are kind of ringing, calling South Dakota and saying what are you guys doing on this access to justice issue with respect to rural areas. And so, again congratulations. Thank you Pat.
My pleasure, Chris.
Appreciate your time today. And if you have any other questions about Project Rural Practice feel free to get in contact with Pat or the Executive Director of the State Bar of South Dakota. I’m sure they’d be willing to share their experiences and all that has come about based upon their efforts. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back with more topics soon. Thanks.
Pat Goetzinger is a partner in the Rapid City law firm Gunderson, Palmer, Nelson & Ashmore, LLP, where he leads the firm’s Business and Estate Planning Group and serves on the firm’s Executive Committee. He practices in the areas of business and estate planning with a focus on family run businesses, affluent individuals, business transactions, and real property law. Pat’s practice has expanded to include service as a mediator, expert witness and court appointed fiduciary on business, trust and estate matters.
Pat is a past President of the State Bar of South Dakota, and the South Dakota Bar Foundation, a Fellow in the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, and a Fellow in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers. He is listed among the Best Lawyers in America, and Chambers USA, America’s leading Lawyers for Business in the categories of Corporate/Commercial Law and Real Estate Law, and Private Wealth Law.
Through his service to the State Bar Association and the Governor’s Task Force on Trust Reform and Administration since its inception in 1997, Pat has been actively involved in drafting and supporting the enactment of trust and business legislation in the South Dakota Legislature.
Pat’s desire to give back to his profession and the state is demonstrated by being the founder of Project Rural Practice, an initiative to restock rural main streets with attorneys and improve access to justice in rural areas. Pat especially enjoys the connection to the Black Hills & the Mount Rushmore National Memorial provided by his lifetime membership in the Mount Rushmore Society.