The Law of Hard Times: Essays

Select essays from Sarah Vogel’s The Law of Hard Times — subscribe to Sarah’s email list to get her latest essays in your email inbox.

oil field flare at night

It’s always a big deal when a small state like North Dakota (population 762,000) is featured in a book that’s reviewed in the New York Times. Michael Patrick F. Smith’s The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown opens on an oil well site near Williston, North Dakota in the spring of 2012. It’s his fifth day on the job and Smith is asked at a “safety meeting” to sign a paper. He asks an innocuous question and his boss says, “And when I hand you something, don’t ask any questions. Just fucking sign it. And smile.” Smith smiled and signed it. I was hooked.

I read The Good Hand in one huge gulp, all 478 pages, on a red-eye flight and I loved it.

When I stumbled off the plane, I was furious—not at Smith, whose book about his time as an oil field worker living in and working in the “boomtown” of Williston is beautifully written and researched. I’m mad at the politicians who allowed oil companies to use human beings as though they were disposable appliances in a wild rush for money.

The Good Hand’s central themes revolve around the mayhem, money, and men that Smith encountered during his 15 months or so of living and working in North Dakota during the peak of the Bakken oil boom. This boom arose when oil companies realized that they could tap a huge oil field (the Bakken formation), miles underneath the pristine North Dakota prairies by use of hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling. In the spring of 2012, 217 oil rigs were punching oil wells in a frantic attempt to secure oil rights before the terms of the oil companies’ leases expired. Each rig employed (in various capacities) over 100 workers. Smith was one of those workers and he aspired to be known as “a good hand”—someone who knew his job, was reliable, and respected.

Much of the book is consumed with the wretched living conditions that Smith and his fellow workers endured. Yes, the pay was good, but the costs were spectacularly high. Ironically, Smith —who came to Williston from Brooklyn where he held a series of “indoor” jobs like bartender, musician, actor, and office worker—found that Williston rents were higher than Manhattan rents. He ended up paying $450 a month to sleep in a flophouse on a mattress in a living room shared with four other men, and thought it a bargain.

What most shocked me was the danger of the work, and the disregard shown for worker safety.  It is a modern day expose of the miserable working conditions that were tolerated by the oil companies, their many subcontractors and, I’m sorry to say, the state of North Dakota.

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This post was taken from the first issue of my email newsletter, The Law of Hard Times:

Most of The Farmer’s Lawyer occurs in my home, in my office, or on the farms of my clients. But I also spent time in bleak USDA offices, where my clients and I suffered through administrative hearings where we argued that USDA’s reasons for foreclosing or freezing a farmer’s income were illegal under the law and under the Farmers Home Administration’s own regulations.

I was spectacularly unsuccessful at those hearings. I lost them all.

There were many reasons I lost. First, I was making legal arguments to non-lawyers. Second, I was bitterly adversarial, which, naturally, inspired my opponents to be adversarial. Third, I knew the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) rules (almost by heart) but I was a lawyer from town, not a farmer or rancher. I didn’t know enough about farming or ranching to help the farmer develop a credible plan that would show a skeptical FmHA employee in bushels and pounds, in dollars and cents, that foreclosure was not the answer. However, the farm advocates could spend hours brainstorming with the farmer at their kitchen table to come up with feasible cropping and livestock plans that melded with FmHA’s regulations.

To my delighted surprise, a few of my clients – having learned about the hearing process by going through it themselves – began to act as “paralegals” and some began to handle hearings for other farmers. And, to my amazement, they sometimes won.

Today I want to highlight and honor the amazing role that farm advocates played in the 1980s farm crisis. One of these farm advocates was Lou Anne Kling. Read more