As a lawyer at the National Agricultural Law Center, I don’t represent clients. While I- and my colleagues- give presentations about legal issues across the country, we’re prohibited from giving legal advice specific to one person’s situation. But there are many cases where that’s exactly what people ask for- an attorney who can represent their legal interests for the issues they’re facing. When I get that question, here are some suggestions I give:
- The legal issue you’re facing is going to influence the lawyer you’re looking for. For many things, such as real estate, contract work, zoning changes, or basic business planning, a local attorney who may not always work with farmers may still be the best person for the job. They’ll be convenient and knowledgeable about the administrative and court systems in your area. However, for some issues, like crop insurance claim denials, NRCS determinations or ag bankruptcy, it might be better to work with an attorney who is more familiar with the tiny details and pitfalls that make up that area of practice.
- In order to practice law, attorneys have to be a member of either their state bar or bar association. Many of these have a function on their website allowing people to search for members. Some search only by geography, so you can find lawyers close to you. Others also allow searching by practice areas, which will help narrow your search to firms that work with real estate or contracts law, for example. Further, some state bars have a referral service that can connect you with an attorney who practices in your area of need, while also requiring the attorney to charge a lower-cost initial consultation fee. The NALC has created a resource with links to these websites for each state.
- You can also search for professional organizations in the relevant area of law. Many state bar associations have “sections,” joined by attorneys with similar practice interests. The NALC resource can also help you identify active sections. Additionally, there are nationwide organizations that have similar goals, some with a searchable membership directory. For example, I’m a member of the American Agricultural Law Association, which focuses on areas of law that intersect with agriculture, and a membership list is available here.
- If finances are a significant concern, there are a few options available. It’s important to note, however, that these organizations are frequently overwhelmed with requests and sometimes limit their acceptance to certain legal issues, financial status or other criteria. With that being said, many areas have Legal Aid offices that provide legal services to low-income families. Search for your county or city name and “Legal Aid” to find one near you. Additionally, some law schools have clinics where students work with licensed attorneys to help a limited number of individuals in certain situations, such as bankruptcy, immigration, or business formation and development. Search for the name of the law school nearest you plus the word “clinics” to find out if that might be an option. Finally, the American Bar Association has a service called Free Legal Answers where pro bono attorneys provide legal advice in certain subject areas.
Finally, don’t discount the benefits of asking your friends and neighbors if they have an attorney they work with. If that doesn’t work, every town in the country (at least that I’ve been to!) has a small restaurant where farmers meet in the mornings, visit and exchange local “news.” Stop by, have a cup of coffee and talk with them for a bit about who they recommend. Be sure to try the pie!