13 Dec Career Spotlight – Agriculture Attorney
CAREER PROFILE: AGRICULTURE ATTORNEY
As with any commercial enterprise, navigating the often-complex legal waters of business can be an overwhelming task. If legal issues are ignored, the business owner may face onerous repercussions down the road; tackling them alone is risky and detracts from the focus of the firm’s core mission. Agriculture is no exception, and there are professionals available to help producers and agribusiness owners ensure they are protected, compliant, and responsible.
Although a career as an attorney often involves practicing in multiple areas (e.g. oil/gas, real estate, contracts, etc.), opportunities exist to focus on agricultural issues. Whether as in-house counsel for a large agribusiness or as a rural attorney handling matters for local farmers and ranchers, there is a definite need for legal professionals who understand the intricacies of the industry.
To gain a better understanding of what life might be like for an attorney who is passionate about agriculture, we interviewed James Decker. He is a founding partner with Shahan Guevara Decker & Arrott PLLC, headquartered in Stamford, Texas, about 40 miles north of Abilene. He received a B.S. in Agribusiness from Texas A&M and a J.D. from Texas Tech University School of Law. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas, Abilene Young Lawyers, and numerous local civic organizations. He is also involved in the family farming and ranching operation and other local commercial concerns. Approximately 75 percent of Decker’s practice involves agriculture in some form.
We hope you enjoy learning a little more about being an Agriculture Attorney from our interview with James Decker.
AgGrad: You’ve been known to scoff when people call you an attorney and say, “I’m not an attorney. I’m a lawyer!” I hope we can quote you on that.
Decker: Absolutely. [laughs]
AG: On to serious business. What made you want to become an attorn…we mean a lawyer?
D: It’s kind of an interesting journey. There were no real inspirational moments as a child watching a legal movie or TV show and thinking ‘I want to be that person,’ or anything like that. It was basically: I wanted to be in the professional realm in rural West Texas—in business somehow, and just through high school and college looked at various options, and the law was attractive to me. Number one, because I thought it was a good opportunity to be involved in a lot of different businesses…to help people with their various businesses and see the ins and outs of agriculture and real estate and oil and gas and all these different rural—all these different things that are engines of the rural economy. And number two, there was a good demand for it. I knew the number of lawyers in this part of West Texas was pretty limited outside of the city and the number of young [lawyers] was even more limited, so I just thought it was a good opportunity to operate my own business and represent the kind of people I enjoy being around.
AG: So would you say there’s a good opportunity for people who want to earn a larger-than-average income, paired with the demand [for agricultural attorneys] in rural areas?
D: Yes, and it depends on the functions of the area. If there’s limited population and already three young lawyers in that area then it’s probably not the best place to go, but there’s a lot of populations—rural economies are aging, whether it be farmers or ranchers or whatever, but it’s actually true for lawyers. I know a couple of years ago, South Dakota had an initiative trying to get more lawyers in rural areas because of the huge demand for them there, so it’s not just my area of West Texas. In general, the population of rural lawyers is—falls below the demand. And a lot of the legal work in rural areas gets outsourced to the big city so to speak, metropolitan areas of 100,000 or more that are nearby, partly because maybe some people thought, ‘Well, we need to have somebody in that big city who has a specialization or more expertise,’ which is not always true, and a lot of it is simple lack of supply of rural lawyers. And that’s something I have been able to capitalize on—encourage folks, say, ‘Hey look. We can handle your complicated or special legal matters from my office in downtown Stamford, rather than you having to farm it out to Fort Worth or Lubbock or somewhere like that.’
AG: Did you go into it with an intention—because obviously you grew up in the industry and you have a passion for it—which came first: the chicken or the egg? Why agriculture? Did you have a goal to work largely within agriculture issues?
D: I don’t know that I set out with a goal to be the premier ag lawyer, per se, but I set out with a goal to represent those kinds of people involved in agriculture. Something that I saw interacting with lawyers before law school, and interacting with law students during law school…is the limited number of people involved in the law who had an innate understanding of how agriculture works and how its people tick. I interacted with some lawyers who were really good at doing some ag-type things but they really had no ag background. They kind of learned on the fly what their agriculture client needed out of them—and they were very good at it—but they weren’t ag people. They were lawyers who were working in agriculture. And I felt like I had a unique opportunity as someone with an agricultural business/agricultural economics background who was raised in and around production agriculture…that I could provide that kind of common sense application of the law to agriculture [where] maybe a regular lawyer might see the legal issues but not be able to foresee the consequences or circumstances that they wouldn’t know if they hadn’t been involved in cotton farming or wheat farming or cattle production or something.
AG: So for somebody like you…what are the biggest challenges to your practice?
D: I would say it’s bridging the gap between the complexities of the law and the—just regular folks, laypeople, who aren’t well-versed in legal jargon. Lawyers have a tendency to overcomplicate matters. A regular person gets hit with a forty page lease from a solar company or gets handed a sheaf of documents they need to review from an oil company, and they don’t know what it means, so it’s a challenge sometimes to try to distill that into what really matters and to also make sure those people are adequately represented and that they’re protected without having to overcomplicate matters. And a challenge and a goal in my business is to provided value to people and to explain—to help them understand where that value comes from. People get scared away by lawyers. They say, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to charge thousands of dollars to review a contract,’ and [they decide] they can just do it themselves and they get in trouble because they miss something important. But you explain to them, ‘You’re going to pay me X dollars, and here is how that has substantial savings, whether in tax consequences or problems down the road or whatever the risk—or problem with a contract or something.’ And then you understand that they may not be used to running the business decisions by a lawyer but you want to show them the value that ‘I’m going to pay a lawyer a fair rate and he’s going to take care of me because I trust him and I trust his integrity, and that’s going to be money well spent for me.’
AG: So on the other side of that coin, what are the biggest opportunities for somebody who wants to do what you’re doing?
D: Like I said earlier, the people who are lawyers, who have an innate understanding of agriculture, from the agriculture side, is a pretty limited bunch. And the opportunity is there for more folks like me to get into the law. And it’s fun, you know? It’s really enjoyable when people say, ‘Man, you helped me out, and you explained that in terms that I can understand, and I’ve never had that before. And I just feel confident that—anything I need out of a lawyer, I’m coming to see you.’ It’s opportunity to help people be really satisfied in their service. Because it’s a service, and you want them to be happy with the service, but you can also make a tangible impact in their business. If you save their kids a million dollars in estate tax, or they paid you 250 bucks to review a contract that might have cost them thousands of dollars of trouble had they not prepared for it adequately. So it’s very satisfying.
AG: So if somebody had maybe not grown up on a farm or a ranch…but they decided they wanted to have a career in agriculture, and then they narrowed that down to being involved with the law, what would you say somebody like that needs to do before going to law school?
D: I’d tell them to find out who the good ag lawyers are. Reach out to the American Ag Law Association, or the Texas State Bar—we do an ag law seminar in May—and meet people who are ag lawyers and say, ‘What’s your background in agriculture? How did you learn about it?’ Some of those folks have learned it along the way and know it as well as anybody who was a tenth-generation cotton farmer, and others maybe came at it more natural from their family side. But it’s all about the person. Meet people who are doing what you want to do. Not in formal settings. Meet them and say, ‘Hey man, can we go eat lunch and talk about it?’ In my experience, ag lawyers love to meet future ag lawyers and want to teach them and want to help them and tell them everything that they can help them with. Study—if you have a specific are you are interested in and you think, ‘I’d really like to be involved with livestock somewhere but I don’t know enough about it, how do I learn?’ The internet is a powerful tool—your extension services. There’s a lot of things in agriculture that I don’t know anything about but I either want to learn about it or needed to know about it for a client, and I just found all the wells of resources available—from trusted publications—and read up on them and learned things. So the world—there are enormous opportunities out there to learn and take advantage of all of them. From the law school side itself, there’s only really two places in America that have something related to ag law. Drake Law School in Iowa actually has an ag law specialization. If you want to be an ag lawyer and you want to specialize in it at law school, Drake Law is a great place to do that. I know a lot of good folks who have gone out there and done that. They actually have an agricultural law journal that you can participate in while you’re in school. The other one is the University of Arkansas. There’s a Master of Law program—they call it LLM—that people can go get, after they’re lawyers, in specialized areas, whether it be tax, or international business, or whatever. And the only one of those that exists [for agriculture] in America is the University of Arkansas [when AgGrad searched the internet, we also found an LLM program in food and agricultural law at Vermont Law School]. It’s a yearlong course. Actually they do have some online opportunities available now. But basically a yearlong intensive learning about different areas of ag law. So those are different places that have produced some great ag lawyers, and it’s a good resource for folks who are wanting to further their education.
AG: How would you compare the financial stability, as a career, between what you do and what we might call a ‘more traditional’ path into the law—say moving to Houston and working for a big firm doing contract law for big oil and gas companies or something like that? Can you touch on the compensation differences between those?
D: It’s very much an entrepreneurial gig, the way I handled it. I went to work for another lawyer straight out of law school. He kind of gave me the opportunity to build my practice the way I wanted it, and then I ended up starting my own firm. So it’s very much entrepreneurial. I saw the opportunity was there to make money and that the demand was there to be successful, but there was no guaranteed salary that somebody’s going to pay me X dollars on a salary to be their employee. The only person I’m an employee of is myself. So the guaranteed money doesn’t exist, but I felt like by owning my own firm—and this is true of all lawyers, not just ag lawyers—I had the opportunity to own my own firm, and the money I made went into my own pocket, and not ‘I billed X dollars for the firm over the year and only collected about 25 percent of that in terms of my salary,’ or something. So it’s more risk, more downside, but also a lot more reward too. And there are opportunities for people to be ag lawyers that say, ‘Man I don’t want to be an entrepreneur and go strike out on my own. I’d like to go work for a firm with some stability, at least to start.’ And those opportunities are there, where you get the same sort of salary opportunities and just doing it in the ag context. You’ve just got to find those firms and see the ones that are hiring and reach out to them.
AG: With so many environmental issues that are part of the zeitgeist now, talk a little about that as far as specializing in environmental or water issues as it relates to agriculture, and some of the opportunities there.
D: There’s a huge business there. I’ve got some friends of mine who—that’s all they do. They represent dairies who are being attacked for claims of environmental damage…The EPA, or the public lands challenges where these environmental groups will try to shut down public land ranchers. And there’s lawyers who protect water rights for agriculture. There are huge opportunities there. It’s a wide-open field. [In] Texas, those issues are maybe still developing, less so than in other areas. I know folks in New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana—some of the greatest lawyers in [agriculture] practice in those areas because there have been huge challenges for agriculture in those geographic areas for twenty, thirty years. If you want to learn that sort of stuff, those are the people to talk to. That’s a necessary—as Texas and the population grows and becomes more suburban and less connected to agriculture—those are continuing to become big challenges for Texas as well.
AG: What are the big issues right now besides water? Is it eminent domain, or what?
D: Yeah, especially in Texas. I think it’s the growing and changing population in Texas and all the issues that arise from that. It’s eminent domain, it’s pipelines. They’re trying to build this Central Texas highspeed rail from Dallas to Houston. That’s a huge eminent domain issue. In southcentral and East Texas, the pipelines and utility lines going all across Texas people are wanting to lay—producers and landowners need to be adequately compensated there. It’s also just as the farm and agriculture population gets older, older producers are selling out or their kids are taking ownership of the land, so you’re dealing with more absentee landowners maybe who have less of a direct connection with agriculture. So it’s dealing with all the issues from the producer’s side, dealing with those absentee landowners and successive generations, but also the estate planning. You’ve got the farm families wanting to make sure that the family farm stays in the family. Or it’s one kid’s farming and one kid’s off in the city, and the two of them are treated in such a way that family harmony continues and the family farm operation makes it to another generation.
AG: Great! Thank you for all the great information.
D: You bet!