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ND Attorney Shortage Means Limited Access to Justice

About 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but only 2 percent of attorneys practice in these places. (rafabordes/Pixabay)
About 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but only 2 percent of attorneys practice in these places. (rafabordes/Pixabay)
February 8, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. – A shortage of lawyers in North Dakota could be hindering people's access to justice.

Attorney job listings have increased 300 percent in the past year, according to Job Service North Dakota. While lawyers make up a small piece of the overall labor market, their role in communities is big.

Tony Weiler, executive director of the State Bar Association of North Dakota, said the problem looms large in rural parts of the state, where some towns may have one attorney – or none at all. He said the issue is compounded by the fact that many in practice are nearing retirement age.

"We know that in our rural communities, our smaller communities, that there are lawyers who've been practicing there for years," he said. "They're either ready to retire or they have retired and we're not filling those positions with new lawyers or younger lawyers."

Weiler said about 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but only 2 percent of lawyers practice there. Roughly half of North Dakotans live in rural parts of the state. Weiler pointed to the Rural Justice Program, a partnership between his organization and the University of North Dakota Law School, as one promising avenue for attracting more lawyers to sparsely populated communities.

Richard LeMay, executive director of Legal Services of North Dakota, said the lack of attorneys presents a big challenge to providing legal aid for civil cases. Already, legal-service organizations such as his face a funding crunch.

When they don't have the capacity to help, it's usually low-income folks and seniors who suffer, LeMay said, adding that people who don't have access to an attorney are left with few options.

"It's a big problem, and so what that means for people: They either get adept at using the phone, or they travel hundreds of miles to get services," he said. "We have seniors who, their whole life, they've dealt with any issue they have face-to-face."

LeMay noted that the state's oil boom has greatly increased demand for the legal profession. Debt is a major concern for many law-school graduates, and LeMay said competitive wages are necessary to attract attorneys to the state.

Job Service North Dakota data is online at ndworkforceintelligence.com.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND