Iowa Public Television


Rural communities struggle with lack of lawyers

posted on December 16, 2011

MARTIN, S.D. (AP) - Quentin Riggins' family told him he was crawling in diapers when he first met their attorney, Fred Cozad.

As long as Riggins can remember, the attorney's name was scrawled on a chalkboard his grandmother kept next to the phone with the names and numbers of her closest friends and family.

Today, Cozad is the only lawyer left in Martin, a community of about 1,000 people 150 miles southeast of Rapid City, and when the 85-year-old eventually closes his firm, there will be none.

It's a problem seen more and more in rural communities - one that means people must travel farther for legal advice, slowing down the process and bogging down an already-crowded court system.

Cash-strapped communities are spending more money to bring in lawyers from nearby towns for board and commission meetings, while businesses and estates that used to turn to one person for legal guidance are now forced to use firms with multiple specialists - making the process much less personal.

In South Dakota, 65 percent of the state's 1,861 attorneys are in four cities: Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen and Pierre.

A lawyer himself now, Riggins, 32, said he enjoys working with rural clients but he would rather travel to see them than base his office in a rural area. Also, Rapid City, with a population of about 68,000, is as small a community as his wife will agree to live in, he said.

Riggins' decision is not unusual. Census data shows that America's population is shifting from rural to urban. In 1910, 72 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. A century later, it was at an all-time low of 16 percent.

Living in a city especially appeals to law school grads and other young professionals, said Susan Poser, dean at the University of Nebraska College of Law.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the lifestyle," she said.

"People at that age tend to want to be in a city. We're talking about 25-year-olds for the most part."

The drive - which Riggins doesn't mind - can be taxing in rural areas. Emily Sovell is the state's attorney for Sully County as well as the city attorney for several towns in central South Dakota. Based in Onida, Sully County's seat, she sometimes drives as many as four hours roundtrip to attend a city council meeting after a normal eight-hour work day.

Tags: attorney law legal news rural