Project rural practice: its people and its purpose.

Author:Goetzinger, Patrick G.
Position:South Dakota - Project Rural Practice Symposium

This article recounts the story of Project Rural Practice ("PRP") from its inception to date. Like the story of rural America, the story of PRP cannot be effectively told without telling the story of its people. The common interest for each of these people is expressed in the purpose of PRP, which is both to assure meaningful access to legal services in rural communities and also to ensure rural communities remain "not just viable, but thriving." (1) The compelling story of PRP illustrates what can be accomplished when good people work toward a common purpose. Our hope is the story of PRP motivates and inspires positive action here at home and elsewhere in rural America.


    1. The Country Lawyer: A Deep-Rooted Rural History (2)

      [Ee] could have gone to the city, but [hisers] roots are deep in [hisers] community.... [Ee] is the man [or woman] of action whenever the community needs leadership. [Ee] makes a living, and a good one considering the resources of the community, but no fellow citizen with a problem stays away because [ee's] afraid of the legal fee. Lawyer [ee] is, and philosopher too, who loves the community [ee] serves beyond the measure of money or personal honors. [Hisers] principal compensation comes from the love and praise of [hisers] fellowmen.... [Hisers] work, legal, social and cultural, brings honor to [hisers] name and to [hisers] profession. (3)

      These passages lauding the Country Lawyer ably and accurately describe the not-too-distant past in South Dakota. South Dakota's humble rural communities were home to many iconic country lawyers who dispensed prairie wisdom from their Main Street office and shaped the history of the Bar, their local communities, and the state. Although these iconic country lawyers were right at home on Main Street, their talents and ambitions produced a legacy that Main Street could not contain.

      We remember several giants. M.Q. Sharpe was a Main Street lawyer of significance who became Governor from his Kennebec law practice and mentored many prominent lawyers and politicians who were known as the Lyman County Mafia. (4) Another Kennebec lawyer, A.C. Miller, practiced law on the opposite side of Kennebec's Main Street from Mr. Sharpe's office. In 1943, M.Q. Sharpe served as Governor and A.C. Miller served as Lt. Governor, at the same time, making Kennebec the only community in South Dakota history to have both the sitting Governor and Lt. Governor from the same community. (5)

      Other giants from across the state bear recognition. First, Sam Masten, from Canton, whose legendary advocacy skills resulted in USD School of Law naming its annual Moot Court Competition after him. Next, Rick Johnson, a fearless litigator, who succeeded his father, George, and was himself succeeded by his daughter Stephanie and son George in a third generation law firm on Main Street in Gregory. Additionally, the Honorable Mildred Ramynke, originally from Morristown, who became South Dakota's first female judge and the inspiration for The Trailblazer Award, an award given annually by the Law School's Women In Law organization. Lastly, Arthur Frieberg was the first of four generations of Frieberg's to practice law in Beresford, with his son Roscoe, grandson Bob, and great-grandson Tom representing three generations of South Dakota State Bar Presidents. For more stories of distinguished country lawyers, just button-hole anyone over the age of forty who calls a small town their home.

      These lawyers practiced in a different time. South Dakota rural communities were growing in population. Small town schools were at capacity. Main Street store front vacancies were minimal. The constriction in the number of farms and ranches had not yet adversely affected rural economies. Rural Main Streets were well-stocked with country lawyers. Legal work was plentiful, challenging, and profitable. Law school graduates did not second guess a return to their home town. They embraced the challenge of hanging a shingle on Main Street. They lived the romance of a country lawyer as expressed by the passages from the Country Lawyer quote. Rural attorneys were civic leaders regarded by their communities as much more than just another lawyer. They were lauded for their values and humbled by the trust placed in them. They became giants of rural America.

      The shift in population from rural to urban areas in South Dakota over the course of the past decades has been well-documented. With the decline in the number of lawyers on Main Street in small town South Dakota, rural residents' access to lawyers, and by extension, access to justice, also declined. The romance of the country lawyer begs for revival in order to restock rural Main Street with a new generation of country lawyers.


      In his Foreword to this Symposium Issue of the Law Review, Chief Justice Gilbertson eloquently tells the story of what he observed in rural South Dakota over his lifetime. (6) Since first drawing attention to this issue in his State of the Judiciary message in 2005, the Chief had to feel as if he was whistling past the graveyard. A crisis of access to legal services grew in rural South Dakota - and nothing was being done to actively address it.

      South Dakota has sixty-six counties covering a geographical area of 77,184 square miles. As of 2011, six counties have no lawyers, nineteen counties have one to three lawyers, fourteen counties have four to six lawyers, while sixty-five percent of the active members of the State Bar of South Dakota were concentrated in only four cities. South Dakota reflected the national trend regarding the demographics of the legal profession, rural depopulation, and urban migration. (7) South Dakota is on the front line of the national trend where the average age of the profession in rural communities is climbing, while young successors to aging attorneys increasingly prefer an urban-based practice. (8)

      Six years after he first brought attention to this issue, Chief Justice Gilbertson spoke the words that would become one of the anthems of PRP in his 2011 State of the Judiciary message: "We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services. Large populated areas are becoming islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied." (9) The Chief Justice's call for action did not go without notice.

      When the Chief speaks, State Bar leaders listen. At their core, the coauthors of this article are small town South Dakota kids. Bob is from White and Pat is from Martin. Bob Morris, the State Bar President in the 2009-2010 Bar year, along with State Bar Young Lawyer President, Sarah Sharp Theophilus, co-founded the Young Lawyer Mentor Coin Program, which has since been renamed the Hagemann-Morris Mentorship Program. Past President Morris recruited his 1988 Law School classmate, Pat Goetzinger, to serve as State Bar President in the 2011-2012 Bar year. Along with his successor as President, Dick Casey, past President Morris actively mentored Goetzinger as he prepared to launch the theme of "Giving Back" during his year as President of the State Bar.

      Past President Casey initiated formulation of the Bar's Strategic Plan during his term as President. The Bar's Strategic Plan became the core of the Bar's purpose guiding the work of its leadership on behalf of the profession. As the Bar's Strategic Plan evolved and the Mentorship Program matured, both projects were critical in planting the seed that would grow into PRP. PRP represented all elements of the Bar's objective to inspire lawyers to give back to the Bar, their profession, and their community by ensuring meaningful access to legal services for all citizens.

      Inspired by Chief Justice Gilbertson's image of a vast sea of justice denied, Goetzinger declared the Main Street attorney in rural South Dakota an endangered species. (10) From the bully pulpit of the President's Page in the State Bar newsletter, Goetzinger wrote:

      The number of small town attorneys in relation to the need for legal services in rural South Dakota is shocking. The impact of losing rural lawyers on the economic viability of rural communities and the delivery of justice to these areas is potentially devastating. Action to preserve the Main Street attorney in rural [South Dakota] is necessary. (11) The Chief Justice identified an immense problem that had no precedent on how to solve it. Declaring the rural attorney as an endangered species was a bold tactic to grab the attention of the Bar and the public. Attention quickly turned to the tasks necessary to remove rural lawyers from the list of endangered species.


      To address the challenge of shrinking rural attorney numbers and reverse the decline of legal services in rural areas, the Bar responded by creating Project Rural Practice. To increase the effectiveness of PRP, the Bar recognized support for meaningful access to legal services must extend beyond just lawyers. As the Bar pointed out, ensuring that Main Streets in rural South Dakota include law practices is not just an isolated Bar issue--it is a community issue:

      It is linked to the very survival of many key elements that define the distinctive quality of life in all of [South Dakota], The decline of Main Street lawyers is directly connected to the health of the local economy, impacts shrinking budgets, and is key to effective advocacy to ward off discussions about courthouse closings and county consolidation. (12) The threats represented by this challenge extended beyond the borders of the State Bar. Responding to the threat effectively required the participation of

      multiple stakeholder organizations representing several constituencies within the community. (13)

      The Bar asked PRP to take a leadership role in addressing the rural lawyer's status as an endangered species. It was charged with several tasks regarding the...

To continue reading