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Bakken oil patch: Too many people, not enough lawyers

In 2010 Steve Fischer completed law school in Ohio, and like many law school grads at that time, he struggled to find work as an attorney, reports Wyoming Public Radio.

In search for work, he called a friend to ask if he was hiring, and soon enough he found himself not in a court room, but loading crude onto rail cars in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Fischer told WPR that soon he was earning more money than the majority of his law school classmates. It didn’t take long for his new coworkers to discover his background and soon they began asking for legal advice on things like plea deals and drunk driving charges.

WPR reports that while he couldn’t legally offer them advice, he did start doing research for them. This led him to realize the area’s immense need for legal services. Since the early years of the shale oil boom, criminal law cases in the once sleepy areas of western North Dakota have more than tripled, along with instances of mineral rights disputes.

While the lack of lawyers in rural areas isn’t uncommon, the outrageous increase in crime and legal disputes without the necessary resources to handle these issues is. The number of attorneys is increasing, though. According to the North Dakota Supreme Court the Bakken region has roughly 70 more attorneys now than it did in 2010.

Richard LeMay, an attorney at Legal Services North Dakota, which provides services for the low-income and elderly, says this increase still isn’t enough. He told WPR, “The growth in attorneys has been primarily for the purpose of meeting the needs of the oilfield industry, not for the needs of the residents in western North Dakota.”

Related: Breaking the law: Strike force to fight crime in the Bakken

Robin Huseby for North Dakota’s Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigent Defense said she spends the majority of her time finding more attorneys to assist defendants in the Bakken. To meet the constitutional requirement of providing representation for low-income defendants, she said she has taken to extremes such as paying attorney’s travel time to drive the five or six hours it takes to get to Williston. In the Northwest Judicial District, the area which includes the core of the oil patch, criminal cases are becoming more complex as felony cases have increased by approximately 430 percent between 2009 and 2014.

The increase in crime can be attributed to a variety of factors but is primarily due to the surge of people who have converged on the area. Thousands upon thousands of people, mostly young men, have moved to the Bakken and census figures grossly underestimate the total due to the amount of temporary housing and transient residents. Neither law enforcement nor legal service providers were prepared for the sudden increase. Huseby says the increase in criminal cases means that attorneys need to know what they’re doing, both for their protection as well as the defendant’s.

Many attorneys, including Fischer, have been working with the Commission, where they are sometimes paired with a mentor, while operating their own private practices. Becoming acclimated to the rural area of western North Dakota can sometimes be a daunting prospect, though. The housing shortage is another major hurdle for new lawyers. Fischer, for example, has opted to live and operate in Bismarck where office space is more affordable and reasonable housing is easier to come by.

The University of North Dakota Law School, however, has started to ease the transition into living in rural areas. Recently the college launched a summer internship program that places students with judges and clerks in rural communities. The goal of the program is to familiarize the students with life in a small town before venturing out to open their own practices, and for people like Fisher, the experience has paid off. To read or listen to the original report, click here.

2 comments

  1. This problem started when the first lawyer separated the first landowner from his mineral rights that should have stayed with the land.

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