PRP’s ABA House of Delegates Speech

Speech by Past State Bar President Patrick G. Goetzinger

Fifty-two years ago, Harper Lee brought us the compelling story of Atticus Finch, a country lawyer whose devotion to justice placed him and his family in jeopardy.  The story of Atticus Finch marks the peak of the esteem accorded to the country lawyer and illustrates the fundamental role served by the country lawyer in delivering justice to rural Americans.

Today’s Atticus Finch is represented by Fred Cozad, my mentor and a main street lawyer whose practice has thrived in my hometown of Martin, SD where he has practiced for sixty-four years spanning eight decades.

Unfortunately, Fred is the only lawyer remaining in Martin.  He has no successor.

His circumstances illustrate the main street attorney in rural America is an endangered species.  The small number of rural lawyers in relation to the unmet need for legal services in rural areas is shocking.

The impact of losing main street lawyers on the economic viability of our rural communities and the delivery of justice in these areas is potentially devastating.  The concentration of lawyers in urban areas leaving rural America unserved is epidemic.  As Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, David Gilbertson, warned: “We face the very real possibility of whole sections of the state being without access to legal services.  Large populated areas are becoming islands of justice in a rural sea of justice denied.”

In response to these challenges, the State Bar of South Dakota has taken a leadership role in addressing the rural attorney’s status as an endangered species through formation of Project Rural Practice (PRP).  PRP is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort of the State Bar and non-lawyer stakeholders to address this issue.  The task force has identified three areas to focus on in addressing the challenge of attracting lawyers to main street:

First, educate lawyers on Bar and practice support resources for attorneys seeking to move to a rural area.  It is our objective to break down barriers to rural practice.

Second, develop community incentives with our non-lawyer stakeholders and encourage them to make the case for recruiting a lawyer to their main street.

Third, in what has been described as a “ for lawyers and communities,” develop a website to match lawyers with communities or lawyers seeking a successor.

ABA House of Delegate support of the resolution brings attention to this issue and brings the vast resources of the ABA and its volunteer leadership to the task of developing solutions and preserving the tradition of Atticus Finch and his modern day, real life counterpart Fred Cozad as beacons of justice in rural America.  Your support of this resolution vaults PRP to the status of ABA policy.  It confirms effective access to justice includes recruiting lawyers to rural communities in order to ensure access to justice in rural America remains not just viable, but thriving.  Your support sends a clear message that the ABA stands with rural America so that our rural communities also remain not just viable, but thriving.

Thank you for supporting PRP.

(The Resolution was unopposed and approved unanimously.)