Farmer turned lawyer helps make Iowa wind power go

Source: By Grant Rodgers, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Each wind turbine spinning on the Iowa skyline stands on reams of legal paperwork spelling out in fine detail the property rights of all those involved — from rural landowners to the developers involved in building the project.

Before many of the approximately 3,700 turbines dotting Iowa’s fields and prairies went up, Des Moines real estate attorney Kathleen Law drafted those documents, sometimes working the phones to answer questions from farmers about the effects wind farms might have on their crops and livestock.

She works behind the scenes on behalf of wind-energy developers. But some credit the Iowa native who grew up on a family farm south of Lohrville with playing a significant role in the development of around 40 percent of Iowa’s overall wind capacity — more than 6,300 megawatts.

“She’s very quiet and is one of those people that is sort of old-school in the sense that she believes that you learn things when you listen, not when you talk,” said Terry Monson, a semi-retired attorney who supervised Law when she started working in the Nyemaster Goode law firm’s business and real estate department in 2005.

Law, who is one of The Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2017 has a busy year planned , including work on projects that could become part of the Wind XI development by MidAmerican Energy, she said. The $3.6 billion project is expected to add 2,000 megawatts to Iowa’s capacity, in what the American Wind Energy Association says is the nation’s largest wind energy project.

A survivor of the 1980s farm crisis, Law helped run a Greene County farm with her husband, worked in a grocery store, raised children and created folk art for extra money before pursuing a law career in her late 30s.

In the 1980s, Law and her husband, Dave, were like other Midwestern farmers struggling to keep their business afloat amid debt and high interest rates. She attended a year of college at Buena Vista University but left to get married and help her husband run the farm.

“Lots of people we knew lost their farms,” she said. “We hung on and kind of debated in the ’90s whether that was a good decision or not, but now we’re glad we did.”

She eventually returned to school and graduated with a degree in business from a night program. On the same day, in May 2002, that her son, Johnathan, graduated from high school, Law enrolled in law school at Drake University.

She finished her degree in 2005 and went to work at Nyemaster Goode’s office in downtown Des Moines.

Law still farms the same 500 acres with her husband and son in between work. It was this agricultural background that led her toward the work she does now. She credits Monson with steering her in that direction.

“He said, ‘Lots of the farmers that we go out and talk to — none of us can talk to them about their concerns’,” she said. “He said, ‘You’ve got that background. You can relate to them and say, “We farm. I know what you’re talking about.” ‘ ”

Law’s main role is ensuring that builders have a clean title to the land needed for wind turbines, roads and other infrastructure before construction begins.

When she is done, both landowners and developers should have a complete agreement on how the land is to be used — down to understanding how a wind turbine will cast its shadow and how loud it will be when operating.

She even wrote a manual on the topic: “A Practitioners Guide to Real Estate and Wind Energy Development,” which was published by the American Bar Association.

Working in litigation never appealed to Law, but transactional law in real estate proved a good fit. The practice is not as confrontational, and regardless of the client she represents, the aim typically is to find the best outcome for everyone, she said.

Since becoming an attorney, she also has served as president of the Iowa Wind Energy Association, a nonprofit that supports development in Iowa.

“She grew up on the farm and she still is part of the farm, so she fits in and is very comfortable talking with people in rural Iowa,” Monson said. “Developers that don’t have too much experience will come in and want to treat the farm as purely business and are insensitive to the fact that they are invited into the farmer’s home. The whole piece of land is really the farmer’s home.”

Throughout 2017, Law is expected to work on at least 1,140 megawatts of new wind energy projects. She and other experts will also closely watch the effects a Donald Trump administration could have on the industry and the tax credits that have propelled it forward.

“The wind is a free resource,” she said. “Why not capture it? It’s just another Iowa product, like corn or beans.”

Kathleen Law

Age: 55

Residence: Des Moines

Education: Bachelor’s degree from William Penn University in business; law degree from Drake University

Career: Shareholder and attorney at Nyemaster Goode, former president and current secretary of the Iowa Wind Energy Association

Family: Husband, Dave; son, Jonathan