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Too Few Country Lawyers, Or Too Many Courthouses?

In an emergency, minutes count. You never want to be too far away from a first responder in the event of a fire, an accident or a medical crisis.

But a lawyer?

The New York Times reports that South Dakota recently enacted a law designed to entice young attorneys to set up shop in rural areas, where lawyers are becoming scare. The law would provide a limited number of participants with a subsidy in exchange for a five-year commitment to live and work in small communities in the state.

The program is based on similar initiatives designed to attract medical professionals. South Dakota’s chief justice, David E. Gilbertson, made the comparison: “A hospital will not last long with no doctors, and a courthouse and judicial system with no lawyers faces the same grim future.”

But lawyers and doctors are not the same, for a variety of reasons. South Dakota’s subsidy for attorneys is much lower than the one offered by the federal rural medical program it imitates, the National Health Services Corps. And, unlike doctors, lawyers can do most of their work remotely. When they need to be present, it is generally a matter that can be scheduled well in advance.

The biggest argument against subsidizing rural lawyers, however, is that the American countryside does not need more lawyers; it needs fewer courthouses.

Rural America is running short on lawyers mostly because rural America is running short on people. In an increasingly urbanized society where population growth is slow, large swaths of America have fewer people now than they did 50 or 100 years ago. According to the Department of Agriculture, 16 percent of the U.S. population lives in nonmetro areas today, compared with 21 percent as recently as 1990. Bennett County, S.D., the focus of the New York Times article, had a population of 3,431 in 2010; in 1930, that figure was 4,590, according to the Census Bureau. The population of South Dakota as a whole rose from 692,849 to 814,180, but a single county - Minnehaha - accounts for nearly the entire increase. Minnehaha County includes the city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest, which has emerged as a banking and credit card center since the 1970s.

There are a variety of reasons for this shift away from rural life. The fastest-growing towns have graduated from rural to urban centers, attracting people away from smaller communities. Expanding cities have also swallowed nearby towns into their suburbs as they grow. Moreover, for the more remote regions, mechanization has turned farming into a capital-intensive industry. The base price of a farmer’s combine is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fewer, larger farms dominate the landscape, while former residents of farm country gravitate to new jobs in the cities.

As the rural population continues to decline, the real problem is that town and county governments across the countryside have become relics of a bygone era when small-town populations were larger, and communication and transportation were slower.

Across America, property records are stored in musty basements and filing cabinets stationed in courthouses that dot the rural landscape, even as the populations they served have thinned or disappeared. Even in cases where counties have digitized some or all of their records, many require registration to access. In most cases, though, requests for records must be submitted in person, by phone or in writing. When everything is hyperlocal, economies of scale become impossible. And when local governments and offices don’t take advantage of technological advances, distances remain wider than they need to be.

Many of today’s rural counties were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as farm towns and other business centers developed, often as a result of the rapid settlement of the Great Plains. Rural populations needed local government access when cars were a luxury and telephones were rare. There was a time when a county seat was, ideally, “within a day’s buggy ride for every citizen.” That world is not ours.

Rather than spending money to put lawyers in tiny towns, where they would serve sleepy courthouses that have no remaining purpose, states large and small would benefit from consolidating government at all levels and taking better advantage of modern communication. For example, in Nova Scotia, which is a highly rural province with one reasonably sized municipal center in Halifax, all provincial land records are maintained on a centralized database, which is easily accessible to every lawyer and real estate professional in the province. Such centralization is in the best interest of both a region and its citizens.

There’s no such thing as a legal emergency room. Even if you have been pulled over for driving erratically at 3 a.m., your lawyer is likely to be sleeping, whether she’s 10 miles away or 100. She can advise you - in the morning - just as easily from one place as from the other. We do not need to populate an emptying countryside with subsidized lawyers. We need to restructure government and legal systems for the century in which we live, rather than the century in which those systems were built.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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