It’s a great time to be an attorney in North Dakota — especially around the oil fields of rural North Dakota. The number of civil and criminal cases there have skyrocketed in recent years, partly due to squabbles over mineral rights and because of a booming population of young men with money, some of whom are getting in trouble. Now, young attorneys like Steve Fischer are seeing opportunities.
“I was a little jaded, a little discouraged at the time,” he says. Fischer finished law school in Ohio in 2010 — one of the worst years to graduate in recent memory.
Fewer than 70 percent of law school grads who passed the bar in Ohio that year landed a job as an attorney. Fischer finally got a job loading crude oil onto rail cars, something he never thought he’d do.
He had landed in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield, like so many other down-on- their-luck Americans. His co-workers soon found out about his background and began coming to him for legal advice. He quickly realized there was enormous demand for legal services.
“Why don’t I hang my own shingle?” he says.
The rural lawyer shortage is not uncommon. What is uncommon is the massive increase in crime and legal disputes in an area without the legal infrastructure to handle it. Attorney Richard LeMay, of Legal Services North Dakota, which serves the low-income and elderly, says there just aren’t enough attorneys to meet the need.
“Ordinarily we have a lot of people that call us because we’re free,” he says. “Now they’re calling us because they can’t find representation any other place.”
A significant barrier to fixing the shortage is the fact that there aren’t a ton of established law firms looking to hire new attorneys. Kathryn Rand, dean of the University of North Dakota School of Law, says the school “needs to do a better job for preparing our students for putting together a solo practice.”
UND recently started a summer internship to introduce students to the idea of starting up their own shops. States like Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota have similar programs. For Fischer, getting to know a rural place first made a big difference.
“I can easily see myself living the rest of my life in North Dakota,” he says. “I love it here.”
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