While some like to say there are too many lawyers in the United States, the fact is only two percent of small law practices are in rural areas, leaving many of the 20 percent of Americans in rural areas without legal help.
But those attorneys who are practicing in rural areas are uniquely situated to affect the future of agriculture worldwide, according to an article in a recent of the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law. The journal focuses on contemporary issues in international and domestic agricultural law, and dedicates its spring issue to topics discussed at the Annual American Agricultural Law Symposium.
Nancy L. Trueblood, Marquette 2001, owns Trueblood Law Firm LLC, Wauwatosa, where she serves small businesses and people with estate planning needs.
In their article, “Agriculture and the Law: Can the Legal Profession Power the Next Green Revolution?” in the Drake Journal, authors Dan Jacobi and Caitlin Andersen argue that attorneys can – and should – do just that. They believe that feeding the ever-growing numbers of people around the world will depend on how well agricultural law responds to societal changes.
“Succession planning in light of generational changes in rural America; science-based regulatory frameworks, as consumers demand additional food labeling; and land-use rights, as they intersect with a growing understanding of the environmental impact of agriculture, all represent areas of the law ripe for fresh thinking,” Jacobi and Andersen write.1
One concern is that the average age of a U.S. farmer is 58 years old, and the number of farmers over age 70 has increased 30 percent since 2010, they note. Meanwhile, there has been a 20 percent decrease in farmers under age 25.
The attorneys representing those farmers also have an average age closer to retirement than to the average of 49 for all U.S. lawyers. That means a lot of farm ground is expected to change hands in the next 20 years – and the rural lawyers available to help will dwindle.
“Land ownership is going to change, whether by inheritance, tenancy, or purchase. Clearly, there is a corresponding need for attorneys with an understanding of the formal and informal legal aspects of succession planning, lease agreements, and purchase of title to property,” Jacobi and Andersen write.
New attorneys who take up the rural challenge will need to understand these issues, as well as the nuances of farm leasing and the parties involved.
Attorneys in rural practice will need to get up to speed on technological changes in farming, the latest governmental agriculture polices, global markets, and alternate energy options. “If we are successful, however, the legal profession will be the driver of the next Green Revolution,” Jacobi and Andersen say.
Neil D. Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, might agree. “The key to the future of alternative energy for agriculture and rural communities is whether the system will be built on a structure of access, economic opportunity, and sustainability, or on the exploitive model – often seen with other energy sources such as coal and oil. Rural attorneys will play a critical role in shaping this future,” he wrote in 2007.
When it comes to the ethics of practicing in rural areas, the intimacy of rural life is a key factor. While lawyers in urban settings may not know a client before he or she walks through the door, a rural practitioner is more likely to serve a friend, neighbor, or acquaintance.
Medical professionals share this concern. “Trusting relationships in rural health care settings are enhanced by the familiarity common in rural living,” notes the Handbook for Rural Health Care Ethics (University Press of New England). “In rural communities, residents know many of the details of each other’s lives, which can lead to confidentiality issues.”
The Future of Rural Law Practice
But Hamilton also warned in 2007 that it’s hard to predict the future of agricultural law. According to Hamilton, few could have foreseen in 1980 what would shape today’s agricultural law:
“The farm crisis of the early 1980s, the development of environmental concerns, the rate of industrialization and consolidation of farms and agricultural businesses, the reorientation and scale of farm programs – these are just a few of the key developments that have shaped agricultural law and rural practice. ... Other trends such as the continuing decline in farm numbers, the increased scale of many remaining operations, and the emergence of new communities of farmers and rural landowners influence agricultural law and rural practice. While each trend or development was not entirely unexpected, what could not be predicted with accuracy was the actual shape they took, the timing of their development, and their effect on relations within agriculture and rural America.”2
“In looking to the future of agricultural law and rural practice – and there will definitely be such a future – one challenge is to think strategically about the trends and innovations that will shape the opportunities faced by attorneys and the clients and communities we serve.”3