North Dakota turning into a legal desert?

Mike Moen
Special to Devils Lake Daily Journal

MINOT - North Dakota has just had a new class of attorneys admitted to the state bar. But some in the legal community feel there aren't enough new lawyers coming along, making it harder for the average person to defend themselves in court.

The state Supreme Court says last week, 36 new lawyers were sworn in. While data for this year is incomplete, North Dakota added fewer than 200 lawyers each of the last five years, after staying above that mark between 2012 and 2015.

Rich LeMay, executive director of Legal Services of North Dakota, said when helping clients in eviction court, he sees too many others without legal assistance.

"Reality is if you don't have legal representation," said LeMay, "your chances of succeeding in a court hearing are next to none."

A recent report from the American Bar Association found that North Dakota actually saw a 21% increase in its lawyer stock between 2010 and 2020. But the report cautions attorneys aren't evenly distributed, and that rural areas see the biggest shortages.

Those same findings noted that North Dakota has slightly more than two lawyers per 1,000 residents.

Some legal groups say the issue underscores the need for reform, including doing away the with the bar exam - arguing it keeps marginalized individuals from entering the profession.

LeMay said he's unsure whether the industry needs to go that far. He said he sees student debt and lower pay affecting where people work, and the type of law they want to practice.

"That really limits the ability for attorneys who want to do public interest or poverty law," said LeMay.

LeMay said reforms around those issues might prompt more aspiring attorneys to enter and stay in the legal aid arena. He said he worries that removing the bar exam would usher in a wave of attorneys who might not have the best interests of their clients in mind.