North Dakota Rural Justice Clerkship Program: Bringing lawyers to areas in need By Kylie Blanchard, Clearwater Communications The North Dakota Rural Justice Clerkship Program (Rural Clerkship Program) began through a joint effort of the state courts, the University of North Dakota (UND) School of Law, and the State Bar Association of North Dakota (SBAND). Established in 2014, the program was created to expose law students to opportunities available in the state’s rural communities and to address a growing shortage of law professionals in rural North Dakota. In the summers of 2014 and 2015, funding was made available through legislative appropriation for the State Judiciary to select and fund up to three students in judicial clerkships. In 2016, when many state agencies were tightening their budgets, SBAND stepped in to fund the students for summer 2016 to continue the program. Starting with summer 2017, SBAND committed $12,000 a year to fund the Rural Clerkship Program going forward. In an effort to stabilize and grow the program, the 2018 application process will take place in April and students will be encouraged to apply for the available judicial clerkships through the UND School of Law’s Externship Program. All qualified students will be encouraged to apply for the Rural Clerkship Program, and funding will be used to offset the cost of tuition and cost of living in a rural community. Bringing Lawyers to Rural Communities When the Rural Clerkship Program began in 2014, three North Dakota counties had no resident attorneys, six counties had only one resident attorney, and seven counties had two resident attorneys. In 16 counties, 20 attorneys served more than 54,000 people living across 19,000 square miles.1 The program was strongly supported by Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, who brought the need to address the shortage of rural lawyers to the attention of the State Legislature. Second-year law student Jacqueline Bergstrom, left, working with attorney Misty Nehring, right, through a summer field placement at the Williston Public Defenders office. Trish Hodny, interim director of Externship Programs at the UND School of Law, says the Rural Clerkship Program targets both first- and second-year law students. “The students are going into rural communities and are working directly with judges,” she says. “What they see from the bench gives them more of a 360-degree view of what types of cases judges see in rural communities.” She says the participating judges have also helped to bring law students to high-need communities. “The judges in the program go above and beyond; they have assisted students with finding temporary summer housing and regularly take them to social events in the communities,” notes Hodny. “The rural judges have been truly committed to this program.” While the program has most recently funded two students per summer, in the upcoming year, it is expected four to six students will participate in the program, with awards ranging from $2,000 to $3,000. “It is really about finding the right students to fit the program,” she says. “Some of the students work through the Externship Program and others line up the position on their own, but anyone who is in a qualifying position can apply for the competitive funding.” Additional Opportunities The Rural Clerkship Program is just one of the opportunities available to draw law students to rural and high-need communities. The Larson Foundation Summer Rural Justice Scholarship Program, started in 2015 through generous funding from the Edson and Margaret Larson Foundation, provides four to six students with scholarships ranging from $4,000 to $6,000. Each student must work at least 400 hours in a qualifying position with a public defender, state’s attorney, or private firm in a North Dakota city other than Fargo/West Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, or Bismarck/Mandan. In 2017, the Foundation’s Scholarship Program awarded 11 students a total of $48,000. Third-year law student Christina Kissinger gained practical experience through a field placement opportunity with Judge Joseph Vetsch at the Spirit Lake Tribal Court. 6 THE GAVEL The Summer Public Interest Work Grant Program, in its 14th year, is funded through the law school’s endowments and the North Dakota Bar Foundation. Students work unpaid in public interest agencies across the United States and receive grants ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.