How South Dakota is luring attorneys to remote areas

By Connie Kargbo and Christopher Booker

When married couple Brittany Kjerstad and Ryan McKnight moved to rural Philip, South Dakota in the fall of last year, they became the newest and only practicing attorneys in the town of almost 800 people. For a community so small, they quickly became busy.

"You never would expect there'd be this much work to do out in rural South Dakota," said McKnight.

The couple's decision to move to rural Philip, countering the trend of young Americans moving to more urban areas, was made in part because of a first-of its-kind program that McKnight was accepted into.

Across the country rural communities are experiencing a shortage in the number of legal professionals so in 2013, South Dakota responded. The Midwestern state, where 65 percent of its attorneys are located in just four cities, launched a recruitment program. The goal — to attract attorneys to live and work in a rural county in South Dakota for five years with a cash incentive of $12,500 a year.

The program was championed by the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, David Gilbertson. In a State of the Judiciary message, he cautioned against "the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services," creating an area with "islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied."

For rural communities without a lawyer nearby, everyday issues such as taxes or real estate transactions become hardships. With few options, more and more of these small towns are having to pay lawyers to drive in to their towns to provide legal advice, stretching their budgets.

For their part, Kjerstad and McKnight feel they are filling that legal void. "There was definitely a need out here," said Kjerstad.

And the couple has no regrets. "If you were to ask me five years ago if I'd be out living in western South Dakota, no, are you crazy. But now looking back, it's probably one of the best decisions ever, to come out here," said McKnight.

Read the full transcript below: 

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Attorney Kristen Kochekian is spending her morning with officials from Doland, South Dakota – discussing how, legally, the rural ranching community can address a local rat infestation and a dog that is causing a nuisance around town.

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: So the ordinances that we we are mainly seeing a problem with is that dogs are not tagged as well?

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Such legal counsel is hard to come by in Doland and the nine surrounding communities in Spink county. Until last year, there were only two attorneys with private practices — serving the county's 6,000 residents.

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: We likely have some dilapidated structural ordinances in place that we can look at as well.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Most South Dakota attorneys live and work in the state's biggest cities Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Aberdeen — or the capital, Pierre.

With two-thirds of South Dakota's attorneys concentrated in just four cities, it's becoming increasingly difficult for the state's rural residents to find a lawyer, and as older attorneys start to retire, some rural counties are being left without any lawyers at all

CHRIS BOOKER: With Kochekian's arrival, the number of attorneys in private practice in Spink county grew from two to three.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Had you ever been to South Dakota before?

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: No. Never.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Never?

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: Never. I saw a commercial on television late one night, and it looked beautiful and I'm not afraid of change and or travel. And I figured, well, if I get in, then it's meant to be, and it worked out.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: It wasn't a commercial she saw but a TV news report about a first-of-its-kind program enticing young attorneys to move to South Dakota. A few months later, Kochekian, her dog, and her belongings were en route. Following the death of her mother, she decided to leave her family's furniture packaging and shipping business in North Carolina and return to the legal profession.

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: The power of attorney is while you are living.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Now she spends her days pivoting between family and criminal law, municipal disputes, real estate transactions, and the subject of this meeting, estate planning.

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: This is where you would just appoint whoever you want to take over your affairs and handle the estate. They would pay your bills.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Getting Kristen to this table might not have been possible without the efforts of David Gilbertson, Chief Justice of the state's Supreme Court.

DAVID GILBERTSON: South Dakota has 66 counties; 64 of them have courthouses. They are not going to function without attorneys there. It's the same as a hospital with no nurses: nothing's going to happen.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Having witnessed the strain on courts caused by a rural attorney shortage, Gilbertson championed a new program.

You've been quoted as saying large populated areas are becoming islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied. How is justice being denied in rural areas?

DAVID GILBERTSON: You oftentimes need an attorney in a crisis situation sooner rather than later, and if there are no attorneys within 100 miles, it's simply not available. If law enforcement needs the advice of a local prosecutor, they've made an arrest, and they have to decide what way to go with that case, do they have enough evidence, once again, if a prosecutor drives in from 100 miles away, it's justice denied.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Gilbertson, who's is this year's president of the Conference of Chief Justices, says virtually every state has this problem.

DAVID GILBERTSON: I mean, you can look at Georgia, I think, over 90 percent of the attorneys are in Atlanta. Arizona, same thing with Tucson and Phoenix. Texas, virtually all the attorneys in Texas they say are in those four urban areas, with a few sprinkled outside. You name a state, it probably applies.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: According to the National Association of Counties nearly 70 percent of all American counties are considered small and only two percent of American lawyers have practices in these small counties.

In 2013, South Dakota's state legislature approved a one million dollar budget for a 16 attorney pilot program. Half the money came from state coffers; the other half, from participating counties and the state bar association.

DAVID GILBERTSON: We were allowed five years to fill the original 16 slots; we filled them in a little over two.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The program aims to entice young attorneys to live and work in a rural county in South Dakota for five years with a cash stipend of $12,500 a year.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Kocheckian was in the first round of placements.

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: And they give you a list of available counties. And so I looked up a lot of different, you know, schematics with what mileage is from hospitals, from larger cities for shopping. And so I narrowed it down. Spink county was absolutely perfect for me.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: She now works in Redfield, literally, a one stoplight town. Population, a little over 2,000 people.

Her office is owned and operated by Paul Gillette, one of the two attorneys in the county before she arrived.

PAUL GILLETTE: So she came to Redfield sight unseen, which was very strange from my perspective, I thought brave on her part.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In theory there is a large group of people who could follow in Kochekian's footsteps.

According to the American Bar Association, almost a year after graduating – around 30 percent of 2015 law school graduates are not working as full time as lawyers.

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: It's a blessing especially to people that are struggling, trying to find a job or, you know, staying at their parent's home, because they haven't been able to find that golden ring position. I think they should take a risk, and I think they should relocate. And I think they should forge their own path. And I think this allows them the ability to do that.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: You arrived in the summer, passed the bar and basically are good to go. Are you making a living at this point?

KRISTEN KOCHEKIAN: Yes. Absolutely.

SUZANNE STARR: There are counties that are begging for attorneys.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Suzanne Starr assists with the placement of the rural attorneys.

Are you being bombarded with applications?

SUZANNE STARR: We do have quite a few applications, definitely. We have had applicants from Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, LA.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But the majority of applicants are from South Dakota. Convincing them to stay in these communities slow's the state's rural "brain drain," saves communities money, and has a multiplier effect on the economy.

SUZANNE STARR: When we look at the overall package, what this attorney will bring: not just access to justice, but also they'll buy a home there, they'll pay real estate taxes, they'll pay sales tax on what they generate for income. And they generally bring other people into the community too.

RYAN MCKNIGHT: So Martin, what I'm going to have you do is start signing.

Busy is how attorneys Ryan McKnight and Brittany Kjerstad describe their law office in rural Philip, South Dakota, an agriculture and cattle town in the state's western prairie.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: South Dakota natives, the couple met at the university of South Dakota school of law and got married. After McKnight was accepted into the rural attorney program, they decided to plant stakes in Philip, 25 minutes from Kjerstad's hometown. She currently works as a state's attorney — the local prosecutor.

RYAN MCKNIGHT: You never would expect there'd be this much work to do out in rural South Dakota. You just wouldn't expect it with the county around 2,100 people. No big city, nothing within 86 miles of us. But that drastically changed after the first couple weeks.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Was there any resentment? Saying 'look at these young people, the state, the county's going to give them money to come out and work?'

BRITTANY KJERSTAD: That was our biggest fear was like, you know, people say these are lawyers, why are we giving them more money, you know, just because of that stereotype of the lawyer, you know. So it's like, do we really want to pay lawyers more money for just coming here? I am the state's attorney; if I wasn't here, the county would have to hire someone. And they'd have to pay them more to drive. And so it just made sense financially for them to do it.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But does the program make sense financially for the rural attorneys?

PAUL GILLETTE: I have a really good friend that works for the federal public defender's office in pierre now. And he told me that he thinks we're doing a huge disservice to attorneys by encouraging them to come out into the boonies. And that we're sentencing them to a life of poverty as a result of this. I disagree with him but.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Why does he say that?

PAUL GILLETTE: Well, because it's just not as lucrative as it would be if you go somewhere and you find yourself in a narrower, more lucrative field.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: We spoke with Paul Gillette. He actually cited a colleague of his in Pierre, he said, there's also a danger that we're going to make these young attorneys too broad within a profession that essentially kind of rewards niche practice. Do you think that's fair?

DAVID GILBERTSON: I was a small town attorney for 10 years. I enjoyed the variety. And I think if you talk to small town attorneys, and ask them, hey, why are you here? They'll tell you two things. One is the lifestyle; they probably don't even bother to lock their doors at night. And secondly, it's the opportunity to see clients face to face in a multitude of concerns and be able to help them and have the satisfaction, 'hey, I just helped that person solve a problem.'

BRITTANY KJERSTAD: I can work from home too and if I need something I can just walk down to the office.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: McKnight and Kjerstad recently purchased a home and are expecting their first child. They say they are on target to pay off their law school debts within 4 years but see the real benefit of rural practice in the work life balance.

BRITTANY KJERSTAD: You see a lot of attorneys that are really overworked, and I just didn't really want that, I guess.

RYAN MCKNIGHT: That's one of the big things they always taught you or talked to you about in law school was the first five years of your associateship at a big firm were always the ones where it's the hardest on you physically, mentally, you put a lot of time in. I'd like a job where it's 8-5, done, no weekends, and work myself.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: And live?

RYAN MCKNIGHT: And live.

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