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If you need a lawyer, find one who specializes

The State Bar Association of North Dakota conducted their annual meeting in Bismarck last week, so the author of this column spent quite a bit of time speaking with his peers about various legal topics. One of the things we pondered was the question "What is agricultural law?"

It's a legitimate question. Attorneys tend to develop a myopic view of the world. We get caught up in our own practices to the exclusion of what is happening out there in "the real world." In the real world, people who hire lawyers — legal consumers — see things from a far different perspective than lawyers.

Attorneys serve many roles. They are advisors, both personally and professionally. They are even political advisors, depending upon what their client's needs are. Attorneys are counselors at law, and can assist with a variety of legal issues. Additionally, depending upon what your needs are as a client, attorneys are also experts in things like public relations, governmental relations and even interpersonal relations.

When a lawyer goes to law school, the entire process is a three-year adventure. In the first year of law school, there are two semesters of the basic areas of law. Generally these courses are torts, civil procedure, criminal law, property law, contracts, constitutional law and legal writing and research. Except for legal writing and research — where there are frequent assignments that a student is graded on — the course grades are dependent upon final exams. Most lay people don't realize this, but in general, a law student has one exam per semester. That exam is a three to four hour final exam, generally consisting of a handful of essay questions. That one exam is your grade for the semester.

After the first year, the courses for second and third year law students — also known as 2Ls and 3Ls — are more specialized. Often times the grade will be dependent upon a final exam in addition to some graded assignments during the semester. The 2L and 3L years tend to be more fun than the 1L year.

My point is this: many people in the law-consuming public have an expectation that all attorneys "know the law." That's not the case. Most attorneys know what the law is in their specific area of practice, but very few "generalists" are hanging up a shingle to practice law after law school.

I suppose this mirrors the way another white-collar area of employment has gone — medicine. Nowadays there are fewer and fewer "family practice doctors" coming out of medical school. Instead, there is a movement towards specialties in medicine. The same holds true for lawyers.

There is no shortage of lawyers, though, so for the law-consuming public, the news is good! There are several areas of legal practice where specialists can be hired.

For example, if you are facing an "agricultural law" issue, it's good to seek out an attorney who specializes in that area. "Agricultural law" is a broad topic. Contract law is one area of agricultural law, including land leases and/or contracts between farmers and others. Commercial law includes farming issues pertaining to lending, business agreements, bankruptcy and other debtor/creditor issues.

With the maze that we call "tax law," a law practitioner that is both a CPA and an attorney can be invaluable. And a sister area of practice in that realm is estate planning and probate. A good estate planner can preserve your estate so the federal government gets less and your heirs get more when you pass on.

Environmental and water law is a growing practice area, particularly with all that has been happening with Waters of the United States. And an attorney who understands governmental relations is invaluable in that field, as well.

The point is this: If you need a lawyer, try to find one who specializes in the problem that you're facing. In the long run, finding that lawyer will likely save you money and provide you better service.

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