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Lawyers increasingly scarce in Sidney, rural Nebraska

A shortage of lawyers means a lack of justice.

While in some areas, the legal market is oversaturated, the number of qualified attorneys in rural areas is shrinking rapidly. Many counties are underserved at the moment, according to the Nebraska State Bar Association. When there are few lawyers available, this limits access to justice for rural dwellers.

In some cases, people must travel up to 200 miles for legal help. In Nebraska, there are 12 counties that have no lawyers at all.

According to the NSBA there were 18 lawyers in Cheyenne County in 2012, while there were four in Deuel county, two in Kimball county and none in Banner county.

When Tom Sonntag, attorney with Sonntag Goodwin & Leef, first came to Sidney in the 1970s, he worked as the Cheyenne County attorney with no deputy attorney. At that point there were 17 attorneys in Sidney besides himself. Sonntag now estimates that there are 12-13 attorneys actually working in Sidney, with three of those in the county attorney's offices. That leaves fewer to do the rest of the work in the county than there were 40 years ago, when the population was roughly the same as it is now. Many people must travel to Scottsbluff or Ogallala to get legal help, according to Sonntag.

"The work is here," said Cheyenne County attorney Paul Schaub. "We're all loaded up with a lot of work to do."

Both defense and prosecuting attorneys in Cheyenne County have their plates full at the moment, Schaub added.

Schaub has seen this issue first hand when recruiting deputy attorneys.

"It's not an easy process," Schaub said. "I've been fortunate with the deputies I've hired in the past."

New graduates are less likely to take rural jobs because they pay less than city jobs, which is a growing concern with rising student loan debt, according to the NSBA.

Sonntag thinks that this becomes a economic issue as well, because when people travel outside the county for legal aid, they might do some shopping or pay for other services while in bigger cities.

"I don't see where that helps the community out when someone travels out of town to see a lawyer," Sonntag said.

The benefits of practicing in a rural community are great, according to the bar association. These benefits include accelerated career advancement. The average length of time to reach partner in an urban firm is 7-10 years while it is 4-5 years in a rural area. The lower cost of living often offsets lower pay.

Sonntag said he loves working in Cheyenne County, but many people don't feel the same way. Cabela's or the hospital might recruit a husband and wife together to work there, but it's harder to do that with lawyers, Sonntag commented.

Rural law does have perks, in Sonntag's opinion.

"You've got to treat your opponent with respect," Sonntag said. "Because you'll be seeing them again."

He thinks that those fresh out of law school could benefit from working in a rural area.

"I encourage lawyers to come here," Sonntag said. "There is plenty of challenging work available."

The previous generation of rural practitioners is retiring, or will be retiring soon, leaving no successors for existing law offices, in some cases, according to the NSBA.

Sonntag does not think this will be a big issue in Sidney, because many of the firms in this area have taken steps to ensure their firms continue after senior partners are gone.

"Times are changing," Sonntag said. "It's not the way it used to be."

There is a sizeable workload in Sidney because of all the highways converging here, he added. This increases the amount of criminal cases involving non-locals in Cheyenne County courts.

In summer 2013, the NSBA started its rural practice initiative. This program educates second and third year law students about the benefits of practicing law in rural areas in the state.

The initiative featured two, two day tours through Albion, a town of about 1,600, 40 miles northwest of Columbus and Ord, a town of around 2,000, 70 miles north of Kearney. This initiative hooked up at least 2-3 people with jobs, according NSBA president Marsha Fangmeyer.

"The hope is to continue this effort in other areas of the state," Fangmeyer said. "It is essential that we provide access to justice all across the state, including the rural areas."

This problem is not limited to Nebraska. According to the New York Times, South Dakota recently passed a law offering lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work in rural areas. The Iowa and Kansas state bars also have programs encouraging lawyers to look for jobs outside of urban areas.


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