Lawrence Bender has too much work and too little help. Even if Bender, managing partner of Fredrikson & Byron’s Bismarck, N.D., office, could find the lawyers he needs to hire, he wouldn’t have the staffers to support them.
Oil exploration in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation has flooded the state with legal work, and there simply aren’t enough attorneys to go around, say practitioners, judges and other legal professionals in the region. Some of the demand is directly tied to energy production, like mineral leases and equipment transactions, and much of it stems indirectly from the industry that has lured thousands of oil-patch workers — and their legal problems — to the state.
The result is a strained judicial system, underrepresented clients and a pile of legal work for the taking. Bender needs lawyers at Fredrikson & Byron mainly to help with mineral leases and title searches necessary to get production under way. “It’s troublesome for me that I have to turn work away,” he said.
North Dakota’s population, at 683,932, has grown by 7.6 percent in the past five years, spurred mainly by oil exploration in the western part of the state. Skyrocketing foreign oil prices and advances in hydraulic fracturing technology have propelled this latest surge of Bakken exploration.
That surge has created a shortage not only of oil and gas lawyers but also of public defenders, judges, family law practitioners and legal aid attorneys, and has severely strained court resources, according to a report issued in August by the State Bar Association of North Dakota.
In Minot, for example, the task force’s report found a 52 percent increase in felony cases handled by the public defender’s office. It also found a serious housing shortage, noting that a modest apartment in Williston went for $2,600 per month.
The commission report summarized the lawyer shortage and the burden on private practitioners this way: “One attorney told the Task Force that he feels like he has little dogs yapping at his heels when he gets to his office in the morning, and the dogs keep yapping all day long.”
Encompassing an area of about 200,000 square miles, the Bakken formation covers roughly the western third of North Dakota, reaches westward into the northeast corner of Montana and extends into the southern regions of Canada’s Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces.
OIL AND GAS WORK
The area in North Dakota alone is producing nearly 700,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. Five years ago, it was producing about 24,000 barrels per day, and 10 years ago it was about 1,650 barrels per day. In the heart of the region is Williston, which last year was the fastest-growing small city in the nation.
Fredrikson & Byron opened a Bismarck office in 2007, with Bender as the lone attorney. It now has 15 lawyers mainly working on oil and gas matters, with another 10 handling Bakken business from the firm’s Minneapolis home office. Bender has given up on trying to find laterals who know the intricacies of oil and gas leasing and title work. The supply of those lawyers ran dry in the boom’s early days, he said.
“This is difficult work,” he said. “It’s some of the most complex transaction work we do.” These days, his firm looks to hire young lawyers with “good undergraduate experiences and good law school grades,” he said. “We bring them in and train them.”
Leonard, Street and Deinard, a 190-attorney law firm based in Minneapolis, opened a Bismarck office in March 2011, with an eye toward Bakken business.
“In addition to oil and gas, we’ve seen an increase in real estate work, agriculture and technology,” said Jannelle Combs, head of the office. Before joining Leonard Street, she ran a solo practice in Fargo and Bismarck, where she provided oil and gas drilling title opinions for energy developers in North Dakota, Denver and Houston. She and another attorney work from the Bismarck office, but attorneys from the firm’s Minnesota offices in Minneapolis and St. Cloud pitch in.
AN ACTUAL LAWYER SHORTAGE
The oil boom has meant more fast-food franchises, more divorce cases, more zoning and water-permit work and more housing matters for all attorneys in the area, Combs said.
Not only has an influx of oil patch workers increased the need for basic legal services, but attorneys who used to provide family law, indigent defense and legal aid services have abandoned those practices for oil and gas work, said William Neumann, a former justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court who now is the executive director of the State Bar Association of North Dakota. “This is almost the only place in the U.S. where we’re begging for lawyers,” he said.
Some lawyers are heeding the call. The oil boom has enticed record numbers of out-of-state lawyers into North Dakota with hopes of reaping some of the work. As of November 30, some 186 lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions filed motion applications this year seeking admission by reciprocity, according to the North Dakota State Board of Law Examiners. Last year, 148 motion applications were filed. In 2010, the office received just 94 motions. About 2,500 lawyers are licensed in the state.
Even with the increase in lawyers admitted by reciprocity, Bender would like to see more coming into the state. But making a case for relocating to Bismarck or other North Dakota locations is not easy, he said. And it generally isn’t the cold weather that keeps people away.
“That’s not the issue,” Bender said. “We have more of a problem with people who have grown up in large cities. That’s more difficult,” said Bender. Bismarck, the state capital, has a population of about 63,000. Fargo is the state’s largest city, with about 107,000 people.
North Dakota generally admits attorneys with five years of practice to its bar without requiring an examination. Bender said it’s best to either recruit graduates right out of law school or to try to entice those with the required five years, a harder sell, he said. “If they’ve already established families elsewhere, that’s difficult.”
One of the recommendations made by the bar association’s task force was for the organization to work with the University of North Dakota School of Law to help develop courses to prepare attorneys for solo or small practices to serve the shortage in the western part of the state.
The commission also recommended that the bar association help promote affordable-housing initiatives for attorneys to live and work in that part of the state.
Contact Leigh Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.