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The Ward County Courthouse in Minot, N.D. Ward County photo

Ward County attorney shortage emblematic of bigger N.D. trend

MINOT, N.D. -- The Ward County State's Attorney's Office expects to be operating with only about half of its allotted staff at the end of this March, which highlights a broader recruitment and retention issue affecting prosecution in western North Dakota.

Ward County State's Attorney Rozanna Larson said her office will have vacancies in four of its eight assistant attorney positions with the departure of an attorney at the end of the March.

"We are just going to have to shift how we are going to attack the cases. My concern is things slipping through the cracks as far as getting out discovery to the defendants. We try to do that in a timely manner," she said. "Our goal is to get it out within a week. I hope that we can still maintain that and that things don't slip through the cracks because that's a serious violation. My other concern then, obviously, is having time to properly prepare for the jury trials.

"It gets to be a public safety concern too because if we have to dismiss cases or we can't take the proper time to prepare for cases, then the court has no choice but to dismiss or the jury acquit," she added.

Last month, Larson appealed to the Ward County Commission for a pay raise for an assistant attorney who was to be tasked with overseeing contract attorneys. The office will need to contract to fill the staffing void. Contract attorneys would handle primarily trials for some of the property, traffic and drug offenses. Pre-trial work on those cases still would be handled by staff.

The commission agreed to the pay raise after Larson argued that without it, the supervising attorney would be paid less than the contract attorneys. She noted if the office lost its most experienced assistant attorney over pay, it would severely hamper the ability to keep up with cases.

"We won't be able to function. We can barely function right now," she said. "We work 70 to 80 hours a week, and I am not kidding about that."

Larson said a shortage of staff in state's attorney offices is a problem across western North Dakota. Ward County must compete with other counties seeking prosecuting attorneys, including Burleigh County, which recently had openings for five prosecutors. Williston and Watford City also consistently have had openings.

Ward County has received few applications and often goes through droughts before seeing an application for an opening, although it was able to hire an attorney in February.

Vacancies occur because experienced prosecutors often can find better pay in larger communities or prefer the independence and less demanding work of private practice, Larson said.

Larson has only two assistants with more than one year of experience, and one of those has just barely over a year. Most of the hires in recent years have been newly minted attorneys and sometimes from out of state, particularly Florida, Iowa and Minnesota. Those attorneys frequently return to their home states eventually, although some have remained to enter private practice.

Recruiting more attorneys to the state, getting more students into law school and persuading more of them to consider prosecutor jobs have been proposed as solutions to the shortage.

Lawrence King, a Bismarck attorney who serves on board overseeing lawyer licensure in North Dakota, said the issue may not be too few attorneys.

"Overall, at least from a board or from a total licensure perspective, we're not really seeing a shortage of the number of lawyers, and so I think it's more other issues that are playing into it. I think some of the rural areas are having challenges," he said. "It's more specific areas, either in practice areas like the state's attorneys or indigent defense or geographical areas."

Total licensure in North Dakota increased from 2,052 in 2009 to 3,033. The number of out-of-state attorneys more than doubled but that doesn't contribute to the pool of potential prosecutors. In-state numbers show an increase from 1,461 to 1,687 attorneys in the past 10 years, down from a peak of 1,854 during the oil boom.

Cross border communities such as Moorhead and East Grand Forks are counted as in-state.

Creating opportunities

The number of individuals taking the bar exam fell from 65 in 2009 to 47 last year, although there was a peak of 101 during those years. King said the pass rate did drop a bit, and that's been a topic of discussion with the law school.

Rob Carolin, public relations director for the University of North Dakota School of Law, and Trish Hodny, externship program director for the school, said there is a push to expose students to job opportunities in western North Dakota.

The externship program allows law students to take a summer course that includes time in the field working with attorneys for college credit. The program has grown from 16 students to 67 students last summer. The goal has been to expose students to rural practices, and in Minot, students have been placed with Legal Services and the public defenders office. Plans are to place a student with the state's attorney this coming summer and work is ongoing to place a student with the court system.

The school looks to expand the program to third-year students during a regular semester, allowing them to take classes remotely while externing.

A Rural Justice Practice scholarship is available to students who are working in a state's attorney's office or public defenders office or law firm in a rural area. Students also may be eligible for grants that can help with some living costs in unpaid internships. The State Bar Association funds a rural judicial clerkship program.

Hodny said the school also attempts to expose students to western North Dakota through having event speakers from the west and taking students to a law review symposium every other year in Bismarck. In addition, UND's Rural Practice Association, a student group, promotes and encourages students to consider rural areas.

Carolin said law school enrollment is declining nationally.

"But we are still actively recruiting, and we do everything we can to engage especially North Dakota students to stay in North Dakota. One of the big selling points in coming to school at UND is there are jobs in the state and that's not necessarily the case around the country. North Dakota does have a big need for attorneys," he said.

Aaron Birst, executive director with the North Dakota State's Attorney's Association, said staffing issues are more acute in prosecutors' offices in western North Dakota than in the eastern part of the state, where employment has been more stable.

"Hopefully, it's just a blip," he said of the surge in job openings in the west. "But it's a long-term concern because what I have been hearing from some of the state's attorneys is there's not enough applicants for some of the positions."

Addressing the problem may come down to pay and workload, he said.

"But prosecution is a profession, not something that should be looked at as an experience stepping stone. What you want to do is not just get them in the door but keep them. Almost every prosecutor is doing it not because of the salary. They are doing it because they love the job. But then you have to make sure there's staff available for them so they are not just getting burned out," Birst said. "It's not just about money for people. You also need manageable caseloads."

Larson believes part of the long-term solution for Ward County could lie with a salary study the county is preparing to do, although the study may not be completed until 2020 for 2021 salaries.

Raising the starting salary alone isn't the answer, though, Larson said. She hopes for a tiered system that would enable her office to pay based on experience as many other counties do.