If you know of a new law school graduate looking for a job, then tell them to head to the country. According to an article in The New York Times, “Just 2 percent of small law practices are in rural areas, where nearly a fifth of the country lives.”  

I’m not a lawyer but when I was in my early college years, I momentarily entertained the idea of pursuing a law degree. I had visions of a fancy corner office in Manhattan, not a historic barn in rural North Dakota. But according to recent data, today’s law school graduates may find better success if they open up a practice in a rural area.

The issue has become so dire in South Dakota that the state is offering subsidies to lawyers to work in its rural areas. This is similar to the subsidies available to medical and educational professionals who choose to work in underserved communities.

To get a better idea of the issues laid out in Times’ article, I visited the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics website. The most recent set of occupational employment statistics data, which covers May 2012, was released on March 29, 2013. 

According to the newest data, there were approximately 581,000 working lawyers in May 2012. The five states with the highest employment level are New York (67,210), California (67,190), Florida (40,870), Texas (37,640) and Washington, D.C. (30,830).  

A quick glance at the color-coded map shows that the states with the fewest practicing lawyers include North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Sure, the population of these states is lower than the states with the most lawyers, but the map that shows each state’s concentration of lawyers is even more telling.

North Dakota has the lowest concentration of working lawyers; the state had only about 690 practicing lawyers for a population of nearly 700,000 residents. That is one lawyer for every 1,000 residents. By comparison, New York’s population of 19.5 million, per U.S. Census Bureau estimates, means that the state has one lawyer for every 290 residents.

So the problem is two-fold: Getting lawyers to more rural states and then getting them out into the country where the lawyer-to-resident ratio is even greater.

Help wanted: Rural lawyers needed nationwide
There is a shortage of lawyers in rural states and their small communities.