Career Spotlight: Agricultural Attorney

In today’s world, there seems to be a lawyer for everything — family, business, labor, finance and so on. With that in mind, it should not be surprising that individuals can establish careers as agricultural attorneys.

Understanding the meaning

The thought of fighting for the little farmer against a huge cooperation in court may sound appealing but there is more to the job than that, according to Joel McKie, a partner in Hall Booth Smith Attorneys at Law who specializes in agriculture cases.

Hall Booth Smith Attorneys at Law is comprised of 13 offices throughout the Southeast United States and is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Joel works with 180 lawyers at the firm, but is one of about four that specializes in agriculture cases.

The term agriculture attorney can take on different meanings depending on what space you are in and where you are geographically located. Lawyers working in small towns will deal with a gamete of different cases, like dealing with a contract dispute of a particular agricultural commodity to working on a divorce case that involves farm assets. Those who work in mid to larger law firms, like Hall Booth Smith, may have the opportunity to specialize in more specific cases within the agricultural industry.

“I think of my role as being someone that major in understanding the issues that are unique to agriculture and agribusiness,” Joel said. “That often implicates a variety of different legal matter subject expertise.”

Creating the opportunities

Joel typically works with companies that are known as large agribusinesses, like institutional investors or large family farm operations. A significant part of his job duties include the transactional nature of acquisitions, but that does not stop him from creating other unique opportunities.

“One of the areas that we’ve developed some expertise on is the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act,” he said. “It’s basically a statute that allows people that are supplying produce to have a higher priority from a security standpoint in receivable proceeds from the seller of that produce than traditional secured creditors.”

The complex federal statue was enacted in the 1920s and protects small farmers in Georgia and California and some of the agribusiness that might play in the produce space.

“We’ve spent a fair amount of time in federal court dealing with matters that implicate priority among secure creditors and those who have trust rights on the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act,” Joel said.

The cases Joel likes the most are those where one of two things are occurring — he’s in the weeds with a client trying to figure out a strategy for a deal or transaction or he’s in the weeds with a client, applying his legal knowledge to help them figure out the risks that will lead to the right business decision in that setting.

“Sometimes we get caught in the routine but there are opportunities to really stand up for the little guy or to make a contribution,” Joel said. “There are a lot of cases where I don’t think farmer gets the right deal. I always feel good if I feel like I helped a farmer feed his family or put a little away in the bank to help him have a better year in the future.”

Possessing the traits

If you are on the fence about whether a career as an agriculture attorney is right for you, here are a few traits Joel believes someone in his line of work should possess.

  1.    Strong work ethic — Growing up on a farm laid a solid foundation for Joel to work hard in everything he puts his mind to in his career. Having a strong work ethic is needed to stick out the long hours an agriculture attorney must work.
  2.     Attention to detail — Many cases can change based on the smallest details. Paying attention to the details can be what helps you win a case for a client.
  3.     Discipline — Discipline is the key to making it through law school and keeping up with your cases to ultimately make your clients happy.

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Tim Hammerich

Tim is a strategic communications consultant, founder of AgGrad, and the host of the "Future of Agriculture" podcast. Originally from California, he is now based out of Boise, Idaho.