Rural practice – the green grass

To be a good rural lawyer takes commitment, not only to the law, but also to the agricultural sector.

“It’s not just about being a lawyer. It is about being seen to commit to the industry and to promote the industry as well,” according to Chris Spargo, director of Rotorua-based rural law firm BlackmanSpargo.

“I think there are a lot of people that don’t necessarily treat the industry that well,” he says.

The KPMG Agribusiness Agenda 2012: People unlocking the future backs this thought up. According to the 80-page report, agricultural industry leaders see the urban rural divide continue to grow.

Because of this divide, Mr Spargo says to do well you need to really understand the industry and understand the people that you work with.

“Townies don’t understand the issues that are going on … if it wasn’t for the rural side of our economy we would have had a significantly worse recession,” he says.

Mr Spargo is not only clued up on law, but also Fonterra payouts and climate issues as well as international currency and trade.

“Farmers always ask me about what’s happening, and I am not an expert, but they just want some guidance and help,” he says.

“To understand someone’s business you have to understand their industry. You can’t give advice in a vacuum.”

Presently lawyers don’t appear to play much of a development role in the agricultural sector (a search of the words “law” and “lawyer” in the KPMG Agribusiness Agenda 2012 delivered zero results).

“Lawyers have tended to stand back. There is huge opportunity to be involved in the industry,” Mr Spargo says.

BlackmanSpargo is a member of Federated Farmers and committed to lifting standards across the sector.

“There is more of an opportunity to help farmers. They, at times, get left behind. There is more room to be the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom.”

AWS legal partner Toni Green, based in Invercargill, is part of the firm’s rural legal team.

She says a part of being a rural lawyer is farming knowledge, “so we have a little bit of understanding of their world”.

The firm is also part of the Farming in Southland network, a group of rural professionals who promote farming in Southland and the lifestyle and education opportunities it provides for families.

The group includes banks, real estate agents and accountants. They use the network to go to National and Waimumu field days and promote their services as a group.

All rural lawyers who were contacted for this article emphasised the importance of spending time in the community. This means everything from joining clubs, sponsorship and participating in community events through to a commitment to the national agricultural sector.

Rural calendar

The official start of the dairy season, 1 June, often referred to as “Gypsy day” as share milkers change farms, is the day majority of transactions for the dairying industry occur.

Ms Green says this is a really big undertaking and includes everything from employment contracts to farm sales and purchases. The whole firm gears up for three months for that one day of transactions.

After that, when the lambing and calving seasons begin, the rural team will often put on their gumboots and go to clients, who may be too busy on the farm to deal with their legal issues.

Becoming a rural lawyer

Before hiring an out-of-town lawyer, Mr Spargo and Ms Green say their firms look at connectivity to the local or rural sector.

“Because we are in Invercargill, we’ve got a really strong focus with getting people with Southern connections, because otherwise they just don’t stay,” Ms Green says.

Mr Spargo says BlackmanSpargo will look at hiring someone from an urban background, but that person would have to demonstrate a commitment to the rural sector.

City lawyers, who desire a rural lifestyle, should not be put off because they don’t know anything yet.

Partner at Barltrop Graham in Feilding, Lloyd Evans, who has been working in the area for over 40 years, says agricultural knowledge grows through the course of working with farmers over years.

Benefits of working rural

“Most farmers are pretty straight up and honest people. They call a spade a spade and expect that from people they deal with and they see through people pretty easily,” Mr Spargo says.

“But on the flipside, you tend to have a better relationship with those people than a big corporate, I guess, where the relationship can change overnight with changes to the CEO or the senior management team.”

However, it can take years for an outsider to be accepted into a rural community where relationships are not built lightly.

Mr Evans says working as a practitioner in an “old style” conveyancing firm has meant he doesn’t have to deal with the “emotional stress” other lawyers can face.

“It’s a pleasant way to spend a week. Clients come in, it’s a happy half hour and they tell you what they need,” he says.

“It’s probably idealistic to say farmers are nice people, but farmers, by and large, well they are pleasant people to work for and in most cases they are good clients.”

This article was first published in LawTalk 806, 12 October 2012, page 5.