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Lawyer Raymond German specializes in estate planning at German Law Group in Grand Forks, N.D. IMAGE: NICK NELSON/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

Specialist Solicitors: How specialization works in the region's law offices

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Raymond German became an estate lawyer in part because of a bad estate plan.

“It involved my grandparents when I was quite young,” said German, president of German Law Group, an estate planning law firm in Grand Forks.

“They just had an ‘I Love You’ will” – a simple will in which a married couple leaves the estate to each other and then to their children.

Grandpa died, leaving the estate to Grandma. Then the executor – a son – “borrowed” from the estate and sank the money into an investment, which went bad.

This was decades ago, and everyone involved has passed on. “But lots of money was lost to attorneys, and more important, lots of love and harmony in the family was also lost,” German said.

“Every time we had a family reunion, there was this big elephant in the room.

“So that really motivated me, and it helped inspire our approach to estate planning, which is, ‘We’re here to create peace of mind.’”

Specialization in law

Today, estate planning and elder law make up virtually all of German Law Group’s practice. And in Prairie Business’ circulation area, there are dozens or even hundreds of other attorneys who focus on specialized areas of law, from trial attorneys and divorce lawyers to attorneys who take up narrower fields such as water resources law..

But what is specialization in law? What are the standards, and how do they compare with, say, the “board certification” process in medicine?

What skills might a specialist bring that can help clients?

Let’s tackle those questions in the context of the Dakotas and western Minnesota.      

  • In fact, there is a “board certification” process for lawyers who want to become certified specialists.

But it’s poorly known. That’s in part because it dates back only to the 1990s, compared with its medical counterpart, which began in 1933, wrote Thomas Sartwelle in 2011 in the journal The Professional Lawyer.

As a result, “it is estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of physicians practicing in the United States are board certified,” Sartwell wrote.

“On the other hand, less than 3 percent of private practice lawyers are board certified by a state or national certifying body.”

Understand, the American Bar Association until the 1970s prohibited lawyers from saying that they specialized. But court cases and changing times altered that, and as a result, specialty certification programs for lawyers are growing – albeit slowly.

Today, for example, 17 states either certify specialists or accredit certification programs.

Minnesota is one. The Minnesota Board of Legal Certification, an arm of the state Supreme Court, “accredits the agencies that certify lawyers in Minnesota,” said Emily Eschweiler, the board’s director.

There are 10 fields of law in Minnesota in which lawyers can become certified specialists. These include criminal law, child welfare law, elder law, labor and employment law and real property law.

“What this process does is it provides the public with assurances that if the individual is certified, he or she has been deemed proficient in that area of law,” Eschweiler said.

Remember, though, that the certification remains voluntary. That means lawyers are free to practice in those fields and others without certification.

Most do just that. In Minnesota, only about 3.3 percent of active lawyers are certified specialists.

Similarly, only about 25 of North Dakota’s 1,700 active attorneys have been certified by ABA-approved specialty boards, according to board registries.

Word of mouth

In contrast to Minnesota, neither North Dakota nor South Dakota certify legal specialists. “We’re a small state, and it’s just not something that comes up very often,” said Tony Weiler, executive director of the North Dakota state bar.

“Here, you generally can find out who the good lawyers are through word of mouth.”

Josh Swanson agreed. “In North Dakota, the old adage that the interstate is just one big Main Street applies,” said Swanson, a partner at Vogel Law Firm in Fargo.

“When you meet someone, you tend to be only two people removed: You either know that person, or you know someone who does.” That, coupled with the state’s small number of attorneys, means it’s not hard “to get a good idea of which attorneys are practicing in what areas of the law.”

For his part, Swanson focuses much of his practice on energy and natural resources law.

“I’m from a fifth-generation North Dakota farm family, and when I got done with law school in 2009, the oil and gas industry was affecting a lot of landowners, both positively and negatively,” he said.

“So energy was an area that I really gravitated toward.” A state district court clerkship in Minot and Williston, N.D. – the heart of the Bakken – also helped.

Today, Swanson works on “everything from oil-and-gas leases to oil-spill cases to surface use agreements involving well pads,” he said.

“And it’s just like in football: The more tape you watch, the more familiar you become with the different nuances, the different strategies that the other side is going to use.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Swanson said. “The oil industry has been overwhelmingly beneficial to our state. But the oil companies also have very good and very skilled attorneys. And if you’re a landowner who’s dealing with them, then you want someone on your side who also focuses on that area of the law.”

Ag law

As with oil, so, too, with agriculture, said Derrick Braaten of Braaten Law Firm in Bismarck.

Some 99 percent of Braaten’s clients are farmers and ranchers. “Understand, I certainly couldn’t run a farm,” Braaten said. “In fact, I’m sure I’d run it into the ground within a week.

“But when a farmer talks, i know what time of year they’re going to cut hay. I understand the rhythms of a farm, I know about soil health.

“So a lot of what I know really helps me as an agricultural law practitioner – not just the law, but also having a strong grounding and background in agriculture itself.”

The complexity of U.S. Department of Agriculture rules also can call for a specialist. “It’s unbelievable, the acronyms, the jargon and the regulations that are involved,” Braaten said.

“In crop insurance, for example, we don’t typically get involved until something has gone wrong. Then we’ll look back through boxes of paperwork, sometimes for something as simple as a form with the wrong box checked – a mistake that has made all the difference three years later.”

The bottom line is that complicated questions often call for specialized help, said Ray German of German Law Group, the estate-law practice in Grand Forks.

“I had a client a month ago who said, ‘Well, how long is it going to take once we sit down?’” German said.

“I said, ‘Normally in 30 days, we’ll be signing all of the documents.’ He said, ‘Well, how can that be? The last attorney I went to, we spent two years and $20,000, and I still don’t have anything done.’

“I said, ‘The difference is, this is all we do.’” Thanks to repetition and expertise, specialists don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every case, German said.

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business