Lawyering up North Dakota

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Lawyering up North Dakota

We all know the tired saying: there are too many lawyers in America.

Not so, says North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle. He points out that some rural counties in the state have little or no access to legal services. Following a proposal from a North Dakota judge and the dean of the state's only law school, VandeWalle announced earlier this year that three internships for law students will be made available to address the shortage.

The chief justice noted that 21 of North Dakota's 53 counties have fewer than four attorneys, and four counties have no attorneys. So VandeWalle ? quoting the proposal ? said the internships will be with judges chambered in communities that have fewer than 15,000 people. The goal: to demonstrate to new lawyers the benefits of living and working in small communities.

University of North Dakota School of Law Dean Kathryn Rand and North Dakota Judge Gail Hagerty, who also is past president of the State Bar Association of North Dakota (SBAND), drafted and submitted the document, titled "Rural Justice Proposal," to the Chief Justice for his support.

"This was a joint initiative of the state courts, the School of Law and SBAND," said Rand, who also is the Floyd B. Sperry Professor of Law and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy.

Hagerty, a former state prosecutor, has been elected several times to the bench of the South-Central Judicial District; she's been a judge for 26 years. A Bismarck native and UND Law alumna, Hagerty says she and many other jurists and legal professionals in the state have been concerned for a long while about the lack of attorneys in many rural North Dakota communities.

"The American Bar Association has noted this, too, and when I was president of the North Dakota State Bar Association, we were concerned about the need for judges and state's attorneys (prosecutors) in rural communities," said Hagerty, whose husband is North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom, also a UND Law School alumnus. "I resolved to undertake something that was doable in the short-term and would lead to some additional steps."

"The first step was looking at having positions with rural judges," she said. "So we decided to pilot-test that out for students to work in the summer months with state's attorneys, judges and private practitioners, and continue with those relationship through distance communications, for example, doing research. We got funding from the legislature for this project."

Hagerty sees the problem firsthand.

"I am one of eight judges in the North Dakota South-Central Judicial District, which covers a lot of western North Dakota," she said. "Most of my work is in Bismarck and Mandan, but in rotation with the other seven judges in the district, I travel to rural communities such as Center and Stanton, where there are not enough attorneys to meet the growing needs of these places."

Growing needs

Hagerty describes the challenge: "There are real legal needs out there: more oil and gas law, an increasing amount of probate matters, more crimes to deal with, and more need for family law. Right now, without immediate access to legal services, it's very difficult for people, and it can increase costs. We also need more attorneys to do indigent defense work, we need more prosecutors and we need more new practitioners. There's a lot of potential in rural communities."

Probate work is a specific case in point underlying the need for more rural legal practitioners.

"There's a lot more probate work, for example, with property that wasn't probated for generations," Hagerty says. "Now we need to clearly establish ownership of the land and mineral rights. Some of that land was one thought not to be worth very much, but it's suddenly worth a lot more."

There is also a lot more family law work, and significantly more need for attorneys in criminal and business law.

Also, the State Bar Association established a task force to evaluate the needs of the justice system in energy-impacted areas. A big finding was the need for additional legal services, Hagerty noted.

Strong partnership

She sees the developing partnership with the UND School of Law in this area as very beneficial to the state.

"We have a wonderful partnership with University of North Dakota School of Law because Dean Rand was very open to recognizing this need," Hagerty said. "The school actively looked for ways to be part of the solution and to use technology to facilitate an ongoing relationship between students and practitioners."

A meeting-and-greet has been scheduled for Oct. 14 at the UND Law School for practitioners, such as judges, prosecutors, practicing attorneys and law students, to stir up interest in rural clerkships.

"This is really a unique project between the state judicial system and the law school to meet an identified need," Hagerty said.

The word is getting around, according to Rand.

"We've already had requests from other judges to expand the program, so if this pilot is successful, we will explore whether we can place more students in similar clerkships and externships to serve our state's justice system," Rand said.

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs Writer

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