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Hurting for Attorneys, UND Program Boosts Rural Numbers

Areas such as Williston in western North Dakota are struggling to attract attorneys. (Andrew Filer/Flickr)
Areas such as Williston in western North Dakota are struggling to attract attorneys. (Andrew Filer/Flickr)
April 30, 2019

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — There’s a mounting attorney shortage in rural areas of the state, and the University of North Dakota is tackling the issue head on.

The Rural Justice program at the UND School of Law offers scholarships to students to work in the places that need them most.

Michael McGinniss, the law school's incoming dean, noted six counties in the state don't have an attorney. The program is designed to get students interested in working in these underserved areas. McGinniss said students also get to see the advantages of working in small communities.

"It's the chance not only for you to learn and meet the people in the community, but also for them to get to know you,” McGinniss said. “So there's a sense that you're needed, that you're valued, that people are excited that you're there providing that assistance."

The scholarship program started in 2015 with four students and has grown to 10-12 in recent years. In 2017, McGinniss said, 12 students provided 4,350 hours of work over the course of the summer, which is equivalent to the work of more than two full-time attorneys over a year.

Emily Ramage is a third-year law student at UND who has received Rural Justice program scholarships and worked in Williston. Because of her experience, Ramage has accepted a job in the city. She said the scholarship helped her pay for the high cost of living in the area, which is on the rise because of the Bakken oil boom.

She said it’s been satisfying to give back to people she knows in the community.

"When clients walk in the door, I might not know them the first time, but I definitely am going to see them around the community,” Ramage said. “So it's just really rewarding to be able to know them on a professional level, as well as on a personal level."

Ramage said the program helps people work in fields with high needs, such as family law and oil and gas law.

McGinniss said the State Bar Association of North Dakota and the North Dakota state courts have helped welcome and support students coming to work in rural areas.

"We're very excited about what we can do going forward to grow the program, and to make it continue to flourish and provide good benefits for the state of North Dakota,” he said.

McGinniss begins his tenure as dean in July and plans to emphasize the Rural Justice program.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND