Inside The Boom: Lawyers, Oil Workers And Me

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Andrew Cullen

Reporter Emily Guerin orders coffee from a coffee shack designed for vehicles much larger than hers. Outside Watford City, North Dakota.

When I drive around the Bakken oilfield, I often feel out of place. My car is too small for drive-thrus (I drive a small, foreign-made sedan, and almost everyone else is in a big, American truck). I wear sandals or flats, not steel-toed boots. My clothes are clean, not covered in mud, dust or grease. I work 40 hours a week, not 80. And while I see a lot of women, I don’t see many traveling alone.

But if you overlook the obvious differences, there are a lot of similarities between me and the oilfield workers, the most important one being that we all came here for the same reasons: There are better career opportunities in North Dakota than almost anywhere else.

Recently, I’ve come across another group of people who moved to North Dakota for this reason: young lawyers.

2011 was the worst year to graduate law school in almost 20 years, according to the National Association for Law Placement, a trend that began during the Great Recession. But the recession barely impacted North Dakota, because the Bakken oil boom was taking off. Thousands of people flooded into the western part of the state, a region that had lost population for decades. Suddenly, there was more crime, more divorces, more business disputes and fights over mineral rights. And there weren’t enough lawyers to handle all the cases. As one young attorney told me, “North Dakota is probably the only place in America where you can safely say there aren’t enough lawyers.”

So attorneys began moving in. I met one young lawyer who recently passed the bar and began to practice after working at an oil loading terminal for years after law school. Another who just moved up from the Southwest and started a firm with his brother. A third who switched from being a grain trader to a criminal defense attorney in order to practice in North Dakota.

They probably feel out of place in the Bakken, too, with their nice shoes and shiny briefcases. But even though they look out of place, they’re here for the same reasons as the rest of us.