Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with my old friend and mentor, Fred Cozad, at his Main Street office in Martin, SD, where Fred has dispensed prairie wisdom as a rural lawyer for the past 65 years. Fred and his law office were featured on the front page of the New York Times when it covered Project Rural Practice (PRP) and the first-in-the-nation rural lawyer recruitment program unique to South Dakota. Since being featured in the New York Times, on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and in several other stories, PRP has ventured into new frontiers.
One new frontier is the search for candidates to participate in South Dakota’s rural lawyer recruitment program. The program is the culmination of the partnership between the State Bar of South Dakota, local community leaders and the South Dakota Unified Judicial System (UJS). Detail on South Dakota’s rural lawyer recruitment program can be found at the PRP website and the UJS website. The attorneys participating in the program are affectionately called the Sweet Sixteen, which is the number of attorneys that can be funded through the program. Significant activity has occurred since the program became active in July 2013. Currently, educating law students, lawyers, and community leaders about the program as well as facilitating creative solutions between the stakeholders has been PRP’s focus. The first Sweet Sixteen slot has been filed and several counties have submitted applications for the next round. Several law students and lawyers are actively pursuing matches with communities.
In fact, the reason for my recent visit with Fred was to introduce him to a law student and her husband who were in Martin for a community visit as part of the due diligence process of matching Sweet Sixteen candidates with eligible rural communities. It was a grand visit, as it always is when Fred regales us with stories — all of them with a point about the importance of small town lawyers.
When it came time for our guest to ask questions, she revealed two concerns that I can well imagine all young attorneys contemplating a rural practice would have. Her first concern was, “Can I sustain a practice in this community?” Her second question was, “I will be here nearly all alone. Will I know what to do?”
Not too far from Martin is the setting for Kevin Costner’s movie blockbuster, Dances With Wolves. Costner’s character, Lt. Dunbar, had precisely the same thoughts as our Sweet Sixteen candidate. Lt. Dunbar was settling into the isolated outpost on the new frontier of the Dakota plains, Fort Sedgwick. To not only survive, but thrive, he worked hard, gained the trust of his neighbors, and made effective use of his training.
Fred’s response to the visiting law student tracked the same principles that allowed Lt. Dunbar to not only survive, but thrive in the new frontier. In response to the question “Can I sustain a practice?” Fred and I discussed the institutional practice opportunities in a rural community, the need to do prompt work, establish a good reputation, the importance of developing trust, and emphasizing there is no substitute for hard work. To illustrate these points, Fred told a story about one of his early mentors, the iconic rural lawyer, Governor MQ Sharpe of Kennebec, SD.
While still a young lawyer, MQ had taken on the representation of a party in a quiet title action brought by a major institution that was represented by a prominent attorney from Sioux Falls. It was a foregone conclusion MQ’s client would not prevail in the action and the major institution would be successful in quieting the title in its favor. The formality of a hearing was nonetheless required. At the hearing, the supremely confident Sioux Falls attorney presented the evidence in support of quieting title. During his remarks, a young MQ proceeded to point out fatal defects in counsel’s pleadings which necessitated amended pleadings, a new hearing and significant delay to the plans of the institution. While he did not ultimately prevail for his client, MQ immediately established himself as a lawyer to be taken seriously.
Achieving the status of a lawyer to be taken seriously is attainable whether you practice in White River or Sioux Falls. To the question, “Can I sustain a practice?” the answer is not at all dependent on where that practice is located. The answer depends on who the lawyer is and the attributes of that person.
The law student’s second question dealt with her apprehension about being alone and possibly not knowing what to do. To alleviate a young lawyer’s apprehension, having a connection to a veteran lawyer is fundamental. In mid-January, the State Bar of South Dakota and PRP will be the first to launch ALPS Attorney Match, a free online service to link attorneys to one another. Whether for the purposes of forming a mentorship or transitioning a practice, ALPS Attorney Match is a solution to many of the challenges, geographic and otherwise, we encounter to connect with one another and pave the way for attorneys to not only survive, but thrive in our rural communities.
With the additional availability of resources through PRP, the rural lawyer recruitment program, the Bar’s mentorship program, the ALPS Attorney Match program and the support of PRP stakeholders, I am confidant each and every one of the Sweet Sixteen will attain the status of a lawyer to be taken seriously as they settle into the new frontier of rural practice.
Guest post by Patrick G. Goetzinger, Former South Dakota State Bar President, 2011-2012, Co-chair of the Project Rural Practice Task Force