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Bar News - August 17, 2016

Practitioner Profile: Using Law to Make Sense of the Gray Areas

Hipple pauses with Invisible Monsters, a book by his favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk
“When I first went into studying law, it had less to do with how I wanted to shape the world and more about how I wanted to understand the world.”
– Seth Hipple
Law Offices of Martin & Hipple

Seth Hipple is familiar to those who’ve followed along with recent cases involving the state’s wiretapping laws and the right of citizens to videotape law enforcement officers during traffic stops. One of Hipple’s first civil cases in New Hampshire was Gericke v. Begin – in which Carla Gericke, a liberty activist and former president of the Free State Project, was suing Weare Police Chief Gregory Begin, after she was arrested for attempting to video a police stop in Weare.

“I didn’t know much at the time about the state’s wiretapping law, or how recording played into the First Amendment, but it made sense to me that someone should be able to make an objective documentation of events in an area of law where we spend a lot of time figuring out what happened. By nature, memories are imprecise, so the idea that police would be trying to keep video out of the courtroom seemed weird to me,” says Hipple.

That case, which ended in his client’s favor and resulted in a First Circuit decision on making recordings of police, led to Hipple taking on other cases involving members of the Free State Project – a political migration movement among those who generally identify as Libertarians. They set out to populate New Hampshire and use their collective political clout to lobby for reduced government oversight and an expanded free-market economy.

Hipple’s personal “question everything” approach to life, combined with his own Libertarian leanings and client referrals, helped create a niche client base for him among Free Staters, although he serves a variety of clients, mostly in criminal and marital cases. Inevitably, it also led him to consider accepting Bitcoin – an open-source digital currency favored by many Free Staters that operates outside the centralized banking system.

“Sometimes I think I have the mind of a programmer, in that I do want to know why things work – not so much in questioning authority, but rather why does this make sense, or why do we do things this way,” says Hipple. For that reason, he wasn’t opposed to accepting Bitcoin – he just had to do some research before figuring out how to accept it as payment.

Hipple makes clear to clients that he cannot accept Bitcoin as a retainer, only as payment for work that has already been performed, in accordance with professional conduct rules that discuss bartering. He also must ensure the Bitcoin transactions do not include a processing fee, and he always agrees at the onset of engagement on the value of the Bitcoin, to avoid confusion and challenges later related to the currency’s volatility (It was that volatility that turned some of Hipple’s acquaintances into Bitcoin millionaires overnight, when the price shot up to several hundred dollars in a very short period of time.). By the time he goes over the 15-paragraph Bitcoin addendum with them, his clients often opt to pay with US currency instead, he says.

“I thought it might be a flash in the pan, but if a client wants to pay in Bitcoin, I’m happy to do it,” he says.

His willingness to work within the Free State framework created a fine line Hipple was careful not to cross – rather than being pigeonholed as a Free State Project lawyer, he characterizes himself as a lawyer who happens to represent a lot of Libertarian activists.

“Being new to New Hampshire, and a new attorney at the time I took that first case, it was a great place to get clients from a niche community of Libertarian activists – I can tell you they don’t have a lot of lawyer friends,” says Hipple.

Hipple often speaks at Libertarian events about law, even though he doesn’t agree with Libertarians on everything. “I do believe government has a role to play, but I also believe it’s playing too many roles in too many places and causing a lot of trouble because of it,” he said. “The nice thing about speaking to a Libertarian audience is that they really want to know what the law says and how it works.”

But when it comes to deciding whether to take on a client who is an activist, he has developed a litmus test of sorts: He asks potential clients if they will stand when the judge enters the courtroom – something many Libertarians around the country refuse to do, as an act of defiance. It’s the same mentality that often makes members of this movement steadfast in their cases.

“One thing I’ve learned about representing Libertarians is that they don’t back down often, so you end up going to a lot of hearings with them,” Hipple says.

Another thing he’s learned after six years in private practice along with his law partner, Stephen Martin, is that many people in need of legal counsel are looking for a magic solution to their problems, with a guaranteed outcome.

“A lot of clients look at me like I’m a wizard for hire – they want their legal problem to go away in exchange for payment. So, I like to ask them why they feel they should get what they want, you know, what makes it not only legal, but right. Over the years, I’ve learned answering that question is important to judges, so if you only focus on the black letter of the law, you miss the overarching question, of right versus wrong.”

An inquiring mind, compounded by watching his father serve as an alternate juror in a trial when he was 14, led Hipple, 31, on a personal quest to make sense of how the legal system works.

“When I first went into studying law, it had less to do with how I wanted to shape the world and more about how I wanted to understand the world,” Hipple says.

During his formative years, Hipple was a quick study with a penchant for efficiencies – he was homeschooled and wrapped up high school studies at 16, then on to college, where he completed his four-year degree in three years.

“During those years I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to do with my life,” says Hipple, who also considered neuroscience and being a military fighter pilot before settling on a career in law.

Part of that decision was based on his interest in understanding the rules of engagement in a world of laws and statutes – not a simple task, even for those who become attorneys, he says.

“One fact lawyers don’t like to talk about is that it’s almost impossible to be a law-abiding citizen in 2016. There is no lawyer in this country who knows what all the laws of the land are – even from state to state, just knowing all the state laws is impossible.”

Most lawyers will focus on one or two areas of law, and find out what they don’t know, as needed. In that way, it’s even more impossible for the average person to know what’s legal or illegal, Hipple says. “And by the end of law school, I realized there wasn’t an easy answer – even if you were able to memorize all the laws, at the end of the day there are still a lot of gray areas.”

Hipple is looking forward to the career challenges that lie ahead, and credits his experience as part of the NH Bar’s Leadership Academy for encouraging active engagement with the Bar Association.

“I’m eager to tell people about it because I see it as a huge asset to the bar in New Hampshire. I’m forever grateful for that experience because it allowed me to ask questions in a close format – just 10-15 people with sitting judge. I really got a lot out of it, in terms of meeting people and learning to use my skills to be part of the profession. In terms of the graying of the New Hampshire bar, this program allows for me and others to get our foot in the door and become more actively involved in the Bar Association,” Hipple says.

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