What to look for in a Rural Lawyer
Lawyers specialising in the rural sector possess special knowledge and skills. It is important that a farmer engages a legal adviser with rural experience. A failure to obtain proper specialist rural legal advice can be very expensive to the business and often impacts adversely on the family too.
Why a farming business and a farming family need a good lawyer:
- Dealing with your assets when you pass away by having an up-to-date will.
- Having an enduring power of attorney so that the person appointed can make decisions on your behalf if you have lost your mental capacity.
- Protecting you from legal liability.
- Creating an appropriate business structure, protecting individuals from liability, allowing tax efficiency, and ensuring you have a business structure properly suited for the purpose.
- If succession is a consideration, having access to an experienced adviser who can help you prepare the plan.
- Helping you with the major transactions, for example when purchasing or selling land, to ensure you get what you paid for.
So, how should you choose a good rural lawyer?
1. Do your research
Talk to respected farmers in your network and trusted advisors: references are important. You need to meet the person first. Have a checklist and be sure to ask the hard questions. With modern technology, having a lawyer in the nearest town is no longer a necessity. Finding a good rural lawyer is more important than where they work.
2. Are they experienced in rural law and connected to the rural sector
They must have knowledge and experience in rural law and you should ask them for past examples of this. Do they keep up to date with the changing landscape of agri legislation and regulation? A rural lawyer should have a deep connection with the industry and engage with the rural community. Do they attend rural events, are they members of Federated Farmers, do they attend Fonterra forums?
3. Effective Communication
Are the technical legal concepts explained in plain English? Are they open to debate and feedback? The more conservative old-style lawyer will not explain and will not engage. Even the most experienced rural lawyer will not know everything, but you want to engage someone who is happy to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out”.
4. Openly discuss fees
Lawyers generally work on recorded hours at an hourly rate so if your lawyer is inefficient or inexperienced this will cost you. Always ask for an estimate and ideally a fixed quote in writing, which allows you to test that cost against the market and also budget for the expense. However, remember that the best rural lawyers will be in great demand and it is often better to pay a little more for a good job.
5. Do you have genuine trust
You need to work towards building trust in your lawyer and have confidence that your lawyer will do a better job than anyone else.
6. Don’t hesitate to change
Farmers are naturally loyal. However, you need to ensure that everyone working in and on your business has the necessary skills. You should have high standards and if your rural professional is not delivering or adding value to your business, then don’t hesitate to change. If you are in doubt get your legal affairs audited by another lawyer. It is worth the cost.
Written in collaboration with Ian Blackman. Ian is a retired lawyer with expertise and experience in the rural sector. He has written a book on succession planning for farmers.
“Keeping Farming in the Family” by Ian Blackman https://www.keepthefarm.co.nz/