GETTYSBURG, S.D. | As she freely acknowledges, this isn't where Sarah Larson thought she would be practicing law.
Five years ago, she hoped to go back to Rapid City and practice corporate law, close to her native hometown of Edgemont. But as these things usually go, life happened.
She met her future husband, Michael. He too, was a law student at the University of South Dakota, and he had a desire to move back to his hometown and get into the family business of practicing law in Gettysburg.
"Here I am," she told the Capital Journal, laughing.
Larson is one of the state's examples of a law school graduate who has made the leap into practicing law in rural areas, a subject that moved fully into the spotlight in March, when the state Legislature passed House Bill 1096.
That is the bill which will fund a pilot program giving 16 lawyers a little more than $13,000 a year for five years to practice in a rural location that is currently underserved. The program began July 1 and operates on a first come, first served basis until the slots are filled.
"What's going on in rural areas today is begging for more attorneys," said Patrick Goetzinger, a lawyer from Rapid City and the co-chairman of Project Rural Practice, which is a task force that was created in September 2011 to work on the rural shortage issue.
"It's not that we need more lawyers. It's that we need more in the right geographical areas," said Bob Morris, a Belle Fourche lawyer who also serves as a co-chairman on the task force.
The need is illustrated frankly: Of the state's more than 1,800 lawyers, 65 percent operate in just four cities — Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Pierre and Aberdeen. While the populations in rural areas continue to shrink, the need for legal aid in those areas does not. At one point in 2010, three counties in the state were without a lawyer.
The program almost didn't happen at all. If not for a late effort by South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who has championed the rural lawyer effort for years, the program might have been lost. But a hoghouse effort was successful and the bill was passed in the final 24 hours of the legislative session.
The state's United Judicial System will be in charge of selecting the "Sweet Sixteen," as they're being dubbed. Applicants - who can be any licensed lawyer in the state - are urged to meet with the communities they want to serve in an effort to create the best fit possible. Counties with less than 10,000 in population are eligible, provided they can demonstrate a need.
As far as funding is concerned, the state will pay 50 percent of the total cost to fund the program, while schools and county and city governments will pay 35 percent of the subsidy expense. The state bar foundation will fund the other 15 percent needed.
Goetzinger spoke of the importance of having each party buying in.
"It's important to have that because a lawyer is an economic generator in the town and the community," he said.
The program runs through July 1, 2017. Qualifying attorneys will receive annual payments for five years equal to 90 percent of tuition and fees at the University of South Dakota School of Law, which is a little more than $13,000, according to Goetzinger. If the five-year commitment can't be fulfilled, the lawyer pays the money back.