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What Is Cooperative Law? How Can Lawyers Work With Co-Ops?

Cooperative law is probably not what you think it is.

Family law practitioners, along other lawyers, often think of it as synonymous with collaborative law. In family law, it was recently considered a cutting-edge practice area focused on settlements in divorce.

But cooperative law has its roots in antebellum America, when the country was first growing Westward. It was a time when people worked together on real settlements. Despite its long history in America, today, cooperative law is an area of practice young lawyers often overlook. How can you get into cooperative law?

Cooperatives Scholarship

Charles Van Sickle, who died five years ago at age 92, was a cooperative lawyer. In his 50 years of practice, he specialized in utility cooperatives, HMO cooperatives, and other similar organizations.

In his name, the Federated Youth Foundation recently created a scholarship for students who plan to specialize in cooperative law. The scholarship made headlines on the Wisconsin Ag Connection because agriculture cooperatives were historically most common.

Generally, cooperatives are associations of people working together for a common purpose, typically economic. According to the National Association of Business Cooperatives, about 47,000 cooperatives exist in the United States.

About 10,500 credit unions operate as cooperatives. Other groups include agriculture, utilities, child care, insurance, health care, food, equipment, employment and legal services.

Cooperative Law Practice

Co-opLaw.Org, an online resource for cooperatives, says the very definition of a cooperative depends on legal needs.

"The definition of cooperative varies depending on whether you are looking at it from the perspective of a cooperative enthusiast, a corporate lawyer, or a tax lawyer," the e-library says.

A corporate lawyer would say the cooperative needs to be formed under a cooperative or corporation statute. A tax lawyer would say it doesn't matter as long as it "operates cooperatively," the website says.

However, most states have one or more statutes specifically designed for cooperatives. In California, for example, Health and Safety Code Section 11362.775 provides that patients and caregivers may cultivate medical marijuana "collectively or cooperatively."

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