Idaho's country lawyers a rare, and busy, breed

The U.S. has an attorney shortage in rural areas, and some Gem State counties reflect that

adutton@idahostatesman.com, New York Times News ServiceMay 8, 2013 

Tim Fleming spent hours each week admiring the scenery between Gem and Boise counties. That was his commute as the prosecutor for both, simultaneously. Fleming hadn't gone looking for a double-prosecutor job; it just happened, the way Idaho's rural lawyers usually end up wearing multiple hats.

Fleming was Gem County's prosecutor when his counterpart to the east became a judge in 2006. But Boise County's community of 7,000 didn't have enough lawyers interested in the job, so it turned to Fleming.

He juggled both positions for nearly three years. The 50- and 60-hour weeks prepared him for his current role, running one of the handful of law firms in Emmett, a city of 6,500 with almost as many orchards nearby as practicing lawyers.

In Mountain Home, the Elmore County prosecutor is bracing herself for a long search for a new deputy. It took Kristina Schindele six months to find the right person for the job in 2008. She's competing with Boise's higher wages, and she wants a lawyer who's excited about living in a small, military base-centered county.

Many attorneys who practice in Elmore County commute from Boise.

"It is really hard to have somebody who is committed to the community who doesn't live here," Schindele said.

Rural Americans are increasingly without lawyers even as law school graduates are increasingly without jobs. Just 2 percent of small law practices are in rural areas, where nearly one-fifth of the country lives, recent data show.

A handful of Idaho counties have just one attorney, or none. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association said in a 2010 report that county defense attorneys, many hired on contract while maintaining their own practices, carried as much as three or four times the caseload they should have under national standards.

CHANGING TIMES

John Hucks has been a lawyer in New Meadows since 2003. He and his wife moved to Idaho after quitting their practice in Florida and driving around the country for four years. They decided after the RV journey to settle in rural Idaho.

"I work out of my home and go where my client is," he said. "Technology has been a huge help in that regard. I'm not sure I could have done this 15 years ago."

Idaho's shortage is a minor inconvenience compared with South Dakota's.

In Bennett County, S.D., which is situated between Indian reservations on the Nebraska border, Fredric Cozad is retiring after 64 years of property litigation, school board disputes, tax cases and homicides - with no one to take his place.

When he hung out his shingle, he was one of a half-dozen lawyers here. Now there is not a working attorney for 120 miles.

"A hospital will not last long with no doctors, and a courthouse and judicial system with no lawyers faces the same grim future," South Dakota's chief justice, David E. Gilbertson, said. "We face the very real possibility of whole sections of this state being without access to legal services."

In South Dakota, 65 percent of the lawyers live in four urban areas. About 80 percent of the Idaho State Bar's active members are in metro areas, compared with 66 percent of all state residents.

Boise has 13 percent of Idaho's 1.6 million residents but 47 percent of its 3,536 practicing attorneys, according to State Bar and U.S. Census Bureau records.

MONEY FOR LAWYERS

Last summer, the American Bar Association called on federal, state and local governments to stem the decline of lawyers in rural areas.

Two months ago, South Dakota became the first state to heed the call. It passed a law that offers attorneys an annual subsidy to live and work in rural areas, like the national law that doctors, nurses and dentists have had for decades.

Such moves follow a growing call for legal education to model itself on medical training to increase practical skills and employability. They also come amid intense debate on the future of the legal profession, and concerns about a possible glut of lawyers.

In the past two years, only about 55 percent of law school graduates, many with large student loans to repay, have found full-time jobs as attorneys.

"In some areas we probably do have an oversupply of lawyers, but in others we have a chronic undersupply, and that problem is getting worse," said David B. Wilkins, who directs a program on the legal profession at Harvard Law School. "In the 1970s, lawyers spent about half their time serving individuals and half on corporations. By the 1990s, it was two-thirds for corporations. So there has been a skewing toward urban business practice and neglect of many other legal needs."

The new South Dakota law, which will go into effect in June, requires a five-year commitment from the applicant and sets up a pilot program of up to 16 participants. They will receive an annual subsidy of $12,000, 90 percent of the cost of a year at the University of South Dakota Law School.

This compares with a 40-year-old federal program, the National Health Service Corps, which offers up to $60,000 in tax-free loan repayment for two years of service in underserved areas and up to $140,000 for five years of service. The program consists of nearly 10,000 medical, dental and mental health professionals serving 10.4 million people, almost half in rural communities.

A spokesman for the federal program said research had shown that residents who train in rural settings are two to three times more likely than urban graduates to practice in rural areas.

SMALL-TOWN LAW APPEALING TO SOME

Idaho lawyers say our state doesn't face the shortage South Dakota does. The "topic has not risen to a high level of concern" for the Idaho State Bar, according to spokesman Dan Black.

Lawyers say there's less demand for legal services in rural Idaho than there is in the urban and state government hub of Boise, and most Idaho small towns are within driving distance of a larger city.

Hucks has never heard a public outcry for more lawyers. Most of the time, he jokes, attorneys are just happy to be allowed to stay in town.

Fleming is skeptical that a subsidy would help much. You cannot simply walk into Emmett, hang a shingle and expect people to trust you, he said.

"Some attorneys have tried to open here and failed in 30 days," he said.

Besides, the current Gem County Prosecutor, Richard Linville, said there's no shortage of people wanting jobs in Emmett. While it's "a little harder to get lawyers to live in small towns," he said, he didn't have any trouble hiring two deputies in the past two years.

Schindele and Fleming say there's a tight-knit network of small-town lawyers. They help and fill in for each other.

Fleming can rattle off the names of all the lawyers in Emmett, including the retired and those near retirement. One of the longest-serving is Nancy Callahan.

Callahan was a public defender in Gem County for about 10 years - a position she says is underfunded in small communities, where the need for low-cost counsel is great. Now she works in her small firm on a variety of cases.

Callahan thinks Emmett is "paradise" for running a practice.

"I come to work every day in blue jeans," she said. "My dog comes to work with me."

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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