Too many lawyers are living in urban areas, so we need to subsidize their dispersion. Or, so goes the logic of this New York Times report:
In South Dakota, 65 percent of the lawyers live in four urban areas. In Georgia, 70 percent are in the Atlanta area. In Arizona, 94 percent are in the two largest counties, and in Texas, 83 percent are around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Last summer, the American Bar Association called on federal, state and local governments to stem the decline of lawyers in rural areas. Last month, South Dakota became the first state to heed the call. It passed a law that offers lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work in rural areas, like the national one that doctors, nurses and dentists have had for decades.
It’s the New York Times’s job to spot trends, so forgive them for jumping the gun a bit on that analogy. The National Health Services Program, which covers underserved urban communities in addition to rural ones, employs almost 10,000 providers, a fact mentioned much later in the article. The bill creating South Dakota’s new program for lawyers authorizes no more than 16, at a cost to the state of less than half a million dollars (counties also chip in 35 percent, and the state bar adds 15). They aren’t really comparable.
A more important question is why it’s necessary to subsidize lawyers when there’s already a massive oversupply. Last June the Wall Street Journal reported that nine months after graduation, “only 55% of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs that required a law degree.” But, you’re probably thinking, many of those unable to secure employment in the legal profession would probably rather just take a job doing something else than pass the South Dakota bar and settle in the sticks. Fair enough, but given the conditions of the market, it’s a question worth asking.
Let’s add some geographic perspective. The distance from the location of the NYT reporter’s dateline to Rapid City, the state’s second-biggest, is less than two and a half hours by car. Three of the four counties where 65 percent of the state’s lawyers are concentrated are on the Western, Eastern, and Northern ends of the state, the last is in the center. They’re well-dispersed. Those counties house 48 percent of the state’s population; a disproportionate number, maybe, but less so when you consider that cities generally have a greater demand for lawyers. Not to mention that the counties surrounding Sioux City and Rapid City also have higher populations than the state average. In that light, 65 percent seems like a completely reasonable proportion.
But, you see, this is about laying groundwork for the future, not just a government patch for a shortage of expert labor. Here’s where the NHSP adoration gets ridiculous:
A spokesman for the federal program [NHSP] said research had shown that residents who train in rural settings are two to three times more likely than urban graduates to practice in rural areas.
That was the logic of the original NHSP—doctors going through the program would stay where they were placed, and in theory the program would be phased out. The spokesperson’s statement is a twist on the same theme. Except the providers don’t stay. A 1992 study found that nine out of ten leave—statistics have shown NHSP participants are less likely to stay in rural areas than non-participants in similar situations. Now the program is a permanent feature of the welfare state.
Whether or not South Dakota’s program is necessary, it comes at a relatively small cost—less than a million dollars. This small, locally-tailored solution should not be considered a prototype for a larger program aimed at ameliorating the problem of unemployed lawyers. And we certainly shouldn’t take cues from a program that failed on its own terms.