FA C U LT Y P E R S P E C T I V E
B U S H L AW Y E R I N G
racticing law in Alaska is like practicing law anywhere. Except that your client may live three hours away by bush plane on the other side of a 12,000-foot mountain range. Important documents or necessary witnesses may be inaccessible due to distance, terrain or weather. Conferences and court hearings regularly give way to snow storms, spring “breakup” (thaw) and hunting and fishing seasons. And, there’s always the constant lure of the great outdoors to distract lawyers from professional obligations.
As a young lawyer in the early 1980s, I was drawn to Alaska by the outdoors and by my desire for a nontraditional practice to challenge my newly-honed skills. I didn’t know what I was in for. Without having visited the state, I accepted a job with Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC). I arrived in Dillingham, Alaska, in the driving rain on a chilly 40-degree day in August. I quickly located a “quaint” place to live – two rooms with a toilet in the main room and no running water. At work, I handled domestic relations and commercial fishing permit cases for our largely Native clientele. I still remember my first bush flight to a Native village to meet with a client about his case. We were flying 100 feet above the ground when the pilot took us into a heart-stopping nose dive. He yelled above the engine’s din, “Let me show you where I crashed on my last flight out here!” I made it to the village – sans breakfast – only to find my client was out hunting and wasn’t expected back for several days. I quickly learned that subsistence takes priority over legal matters.
After a year in Dillingham, I moved to the ALSC Anchorage office, where I handled a caseload of domestic relations, children’s and public entitlement cases. Anchorage’s legal establishment proved collegial and supportive of young lawyers. I came to know many of Alaska’s best lawyers and judges – Victor Carlson, Karen Hunt, Beverly Cutler, among others. It wasn’t long before I was appointed to serve as district court magistrate in Palmer. My court’s jurisdiction stretched 150 miles north as far as Denali National Park. At the ripe young age of 28, I presided over DWI trials, small claims matters, criminal arraignments and evidentiary hearings. Palmer was a busy court and I was on the bench six to seven hours a day, learning by the seat of my pants. In many ways, lawyering in the bush is law in its purest form: by reason and persuasion (and luck if your client shows up for the hearing). I also served as the district’s coroner. Many a night I was awakened by a telephone call from the middle of nowhere from a state trooper asking for permission to move a dead body. “Are you sure he is dead?” I’d ask in a sleepy stupor. The response from the other end of the line would often be, “Well, the griz left more than half of him, but I don’t think he’ll recover!” – Steven Green Steven Green is a law professor at Willamette University College of Law.