Michigan Farm Bureau wants to increase the number of farmers serving in government 20% by 2022. This is part of a series of articles aimed at informing Farm Bureau members about elected and appointed positions that offer opportunities for representing agriculture in government.
We take a slight detour this time to see what happens when farm kids go to law school. This is the first of two parts.
By Andy Kok
Make all the lawyer jokes you want, but remember: You only hate us until you need us!
Farmers prefer lawyers who understand agriculture — either they grew up on a farm or married into a farm family. We asked several Michigan lawyers who fit that profile about their ag backgrounds, how it colors their legal work, and where the farm and legal communities most overlap.
We asked them to be brief, but these lawyers are a wordy bunch…
Upper Peninsula attorney KAREN BAHRMAN served as Alger County Prosecutor for 35 years before “retiring” to teach criminal procedure at Northern Michigan University. Her husband Dave Bahrman represents the U.P. on the MFB Board of Directors; they both serve on MFB’s Legal Defense Fund Committee.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm but hung around them after acquiring my first horse at age 10 or so. The rumor I married a farmer just to have a place to keep my horses isn’t true!
“Being married to a former dairy farmer (now beef) made me realize Farm Bureau needs to do similar outreach with police and prosecutors as they do with teachers. Otherwise the law enforcement and legal community’s information about animal abuse and neglect will come from HSUS and PETA.
“The conservative values I associate with farmers are an asset to a legal career. They’re known for their common sense, problem solving and civility — all of which we need in the legal community.”
Outside Grand Rapids, attorney STEVE TJAPKES works with farmers and non-farmers alike. He and his sons operate a small livestock farm near Alto. Before attending law school he worked as a large-animal vet.
“My family did not own a farm, but growing up I learned about it on a friend’s dairy. In my legal work I help family farms and agri-businesses establish succession plans to keep them moving from one generation to the next while serving the farm’s current legal needs: everything from business organization and maintenance to real estate agreements, and increasingly labor and environmental compliance.
“The agriculture community has long been based on the premise of personal contact and trust. The legal community is too frequently characterized by adversity and competition. It’s important to remember your personal relationships and standing are as important to farmers as your technical legal qualifications.
“The farm community is also very problem-solution oriented — not simply coming out on top. These are qualities the legal field needs to learn from.”
KIM BABER is a business and corporate lawyer in Grand Rapids whose practice focuses on securities law, corporate governance, and mergers and acquisitions. She grew up near Baroda on a farm her family still runs; her brother Andy Rick serves on the Berrien County Farm Bureau board of directors.
“My farm background helped me as a lawyer by teaching me a strong work ethic. I also think the blue-collar nature of it makes me more down-to-earth — I try hard to communicate concisely and in plain English.”
Grand Rapids trial attorney AARON PHELPS has a cattle farm near Rockford, and has served on the Kent County Farm Bureau board of directors.
“I was in 4-H and my grandparents had cash crops and beef cattle. My neighbor raised Angus cattle and I worked for him.
“Farming is hard work 24-7, and a good lawyer is on call 24-7. If the cows get out, you put them back no matter the time of day; it’s the same when a client calls.
“Litigation can be demanding. Being able to dig in and forge ahead is important — you can’t give up or tire out, and there are lots of early mornings and late nights.
“One of the qualities we need more of in the legal field is better understanding of the farming industry and community. Not many attorneys have that connection.”
Finally, we asked all our farm-savvy counselors what advice they’d give a farm kid considering the legal profession:
Karen Bahrman: Think about work-life balance. It’s not just about what you want to do for a living but where and how you’re willing to live in order to do it.
Steve Tjapkes: Spend time with lawyers who practice in the areas you’re interested in to get a feel. Law is becoming more and more specialized.
Kim Baber: Build strong networking skills. These are very important to lawyers, but aren’t necessarily well-developed by growing up and working on a farm, which can be more isolated.”
Aaron Phelps: Study hard. And law is an office job; if you don’t want to be in a quiet office, reading and writing, then you may not want a career in law.
Tune in to the next edition of Farm Gate to hear from another batch of farm kids-turned-lawyers.
Andy Kok is MFB’s general counsel and secretary.
Local government positions examined in this series:
More coming soon!