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I was born in a small town, I will practise in a small town

|Written By Helen Burnett
I was born in a small town, I will practise in a small town

The big cases, opportunities, and often higher pay of Big Law has many associates flocking to Canada’s large firms and cities after their call to the bar. But for many, the draw of practising in small towns remains strong and not as difficult as some may think.

For new lawyers, the decision to go solo or join a small firm in a smaller centre can happen for many reasons — from returning home, to seeking out a particular work-life balance, or maintaining a certain level of independence. And, say many, it has rewards the big city couldn’t possibly offer as early on in their careers.


All those factors came into play for Laura McDougald-Williams, an associate with Meighen Haddad & Co. in Brandon, Man. A graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law, McDougald-Williams grew up in the Brandon area, where she chose to article and ultimately practise following her call to the bar in 2005.

McDougald-Williams, who has a general practice, splits her time between the firm’s Brandon office and one of its branch offices in Souris, Man., a town of 1,700 people (although she is now on maternity leave). Working for a smaller firm, she has been able to have a better work-life balance than what she hears from colleagues in Toronto and New York. She has weekends off and time to be involved in community organizations, such as the local women’s shelter and arts council.


Some specific practice areas, such as constitutional law, might not get much exposure in smaller towns, which can be a disadvantage for lawyers interested in those specialties, but McDougald-Williams says there haven’t been any surprises for her in terms of practising away from the bright lights of the big city. Her firm of 16 lawyers is small enough that she was given the flexibility to choose what types of work she wanted to do, she says. One advantage has been the independence, creativity, and problem-solving associated with direct client-contact and control over files right from the start.


McDougald-Williams advises those considering a move to a smaller centre to try articling there first to get a feel for whether they will enjoy it. For those who decide to make the move, community involvement is key to having a positive experience, as well as partnering with a good team. “There’s lots of demand for associates here. The firms always seem to be looking for people that are willing to come and to get established and put down some roots here,” she says.


However, according to the numbers, new calls who do set up shop in smaller centres seem to be in the minority. In its 2007 report of the small firm task force, the Law Society of British Columbia noted: “[O]utside of the urban areas, where there are fewer medium-size and larger firms, the absence of younger lawyers is more prevalent. These numbers raise concerns about whether the sole and small-firm bar is renewing itself, particularly in less populated parts of the province, and whether pressures and challenges make it more difficult to attract lawyers to sole and small firm practice.”


Similar trends were seen by the Law Society of Upper Canada in 2005, following the release of the report of its sole practitioner and small firm task force, as it warned of trends pointing to a decrease in new lawyers entering these practice areas. In 1995 young lawyers made up 20 per cent of all sole practitioners in the province, a number which had fallen to nine per cent by 2002, says the LSUC report, adding that small, rural communities “depend on small firms and sole practitioners for the provision of lawyer services.”


The numbers are even smaller when it comes to students. In Ontario, for example, just over five per cent of students called in the last three years articled outside of the urban areas the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton, Windsor, Ottawa, and London, according to a recent report from the LSUC’s licensing and accreditation task force. “There continue to be few jobs outside the large metropolitan areas or in firms of 10 lawyers or fewer. This has implications for the extent to which articling can accomplish one of its goals to act as a transition to sole or small firm practice,” says the report.


Orm Murphy, past president of Ontario’s County and District Law Presidents’ Association and a member of the law society’s working group on sole practitioners and small firms, says there are serious concerns about the “greying of the bar.”  “Young people seem to be attracted to Toronto, and [in] the rest of the province, the bars, generally speaking, are not growing,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that the students, once they graduate from law school, they are not acquainted with the non-urban centres.”


Indeed, in law school, says lawyer Michael Jakeman, it’s the big-city firm jobs that are often profiled. “When I did go there and had a couple of interviews, I just didn’t fit and I felt that it was something that I was trying to fit myself into a different box, where I really wanted to be this, where I could have an idea and a say in who we’re going to hire and what we’re going to talk about,” he says.


Once done articling with a smaller firm in Victoria, B.C., and after his call to the bar in 2006, Jakeman, a Métis lawyer, decided to make the move to Fort McMurray, Alta. He went for a number of reasons including family. He has history in the area, he took some aboriginal studies courses in law school, and, he says, it is a flourishing area for Métis people in Alberta. “Being able to come to a small town and hang out a shingle, I was really interested in that,” says Jakeman, who is a partner in the firm Vinni & Jakeman.


While he wouldn’t call the experience daunting, Jakeman says he thought he was over-prepared when he arrived. Turns out he wasn't since he faced being both a lawyer and a businessperson. He advises other young lawyers moving to small towns to know which colleagues you can learn from, what kind of work you want to do, and what your end goal is.  “If you know you want to be a hands-on type of person, than this type of practice is good, as well as running your own business,” he says.


Jakeman, who practises real estate and criminal law, enjoys the work environment and being his own boss, which for him includes working long hours. At the same time, he calls his office a family-oriented place, and staff get together for lunch once a week.


In a town like Fort McMurray where lawyers are needed, there is so much business that comes in the door, says Jakeman. While you want to help people and take the files on, you have to be careful and be sure to be connected to the law practice and those who have a lot of knowledge to share. “At the end of the day, when you start out on your own, you’re the only person you can go to sometimes, and you need to know when something’s over your head,” he says. The law society has been a helpful resource, he says, in terms of practice advisers and reference guides for sole practitioners.


One of the most challenging things about practising in a smaller town or city is being aware of your “community sense,” says Jakeman, including relationships with other lawyers. He has reinitiated the Fort McMurray Bar Association, of which he is the president. Community is also the most rewarding aspect, he says, in terms of being able to focus on the community and knowing that he is a respected member who is contributing right away. Jakeman has also been offered the chance to teach courses for aboriginal business certificate programs at the local college. “[There are] just opportunities that arise from that that you just really wouldn’t see anywhere else,” he says of his decision to practise in a smaller centre.


Currently a boom town of 64,000 people and roughly 30 lawyers (not including in-house counsel), Jakeman says the Fort McMurray bar would not fear the competition if other young lawyers wanted to set up there, but would “embrace” it. “We’re dying for lawyers here in Fort McMurray,” he says.


Orillia, Ont. lawyer Fay McFarlane is noticing a similar trend of difficulty in attracting practitioners to that province’s smaller centres. “It’s hard to attract people here too. We find that we’re short of lawyers in Orillia,” she says. “We do need people to know that, if you come to a small city, there’s work here; there’s tons of work here because we’re short family law lawyers and real estate is really booming,” says McFarlane.


Orillia, a town of 30,000 on the edge of the Canadian Shield, also doesn’t attract a lot of articling students as they tend to gravitate towards big firms, Bay Street, and a variety of experience, she says. Most people who come back to the town are from the area. McFarlane, called to the bar in 2002, articled at Hydro One in Toronto but had spent years working as a law clerk before attending law school. “The lifestyle is just dramatic, the difference in working for the big firm in Toronto and working in Orillia,” she says. “I chose here initially to raise my family, compared to Toronto, and I just decided to stay in Orillia. Everybody wants to get on Bay Street; I found it wasn’t for me.”


McFarlane, who focuses on family law and real estate, says when she started out as a sole practitioner, she thought the larger firms in town would be the ones to get most of the business, but she needn't have worried. “I didn’t find that at all . . . my firm took off, and every lawyer in town that I know — and we all know each other — they’re pretty busy,” she says.


A close-knit bar is one of the main benefits, she says, as in Orillia you’re dealing with the same lawyers on an ongoing basis, you develop a relationship, co-operation, and you know how everybody operates. Lawyers are able to rely on each other and can call with questions, which McFarlane considers a huge advantage. “It’s a great place to start if you’re going to start on your own, because it’s like you have the entire bar as someone you can go to for some guidance,” she says. When she started, McFarlane says she could call up any one of the firms and ask questions or meet with them. “We’re all mentors. We try to help because we want people to stay, so we try to help them. We go out of our way to help other young lawyers. I don’t see any new lawyers starting here and failing because they don’t have the support,” she says.


Working with a small, collegial bar helps to resolve clients’ problems faster, adds McDougald-Williams, and has made it easier, as a young lawyer, to ask questions of lawyers in other firms, for example. “Right from the start, it seemed like the whole community of Brandon lawyers, all of them, I felt like I had a lot of support from, that they were helpful towards me. That’s a big advantage of working . . . in a smaller community,” she says. “It’s been more focused on problem solving for clients than focused on competition and winning,” she says.


Being part of a community is also rewarding, in terms of building a practice based on individuals. “I find it also interesting to be doing work that is directly helping an individual and affecting their life,” she says.

There are some disadvantages associated with practising in a small town, including the fact CLE programs are generally held in large cities. Lawyers are able to access many CLE programs via webcasts, but for those who prefer to attend live sessions, it can be costly, says McFarlane. Another drawback for new lawyers moving to a small town can be the experience factor, as many small practitioners focus on one or two areas and many firms specialize, says McFarlane. Word of mouth in a small town can also either be good or bad, and, as McFarlane says, customer service is really important because “word gets around.”


There are also the misconceptions of small-town lawyers that should be dispelled. “I think the larger city thinks — and we get that a lot — that small-town lawyers are somehow not as educated as the big-city counterparts, which is not true,” says McFarlane. “We read the same books, we go by the same law. So that’s a misconception.”
McFarlane’s advice to students finishing law school or associates considering a move to a smaller town: “We can give you the same experience that you get in a larger city. We have a variety, we have larger firms, we have sole practitioners,” she says, and on top of that, a balanced lifestyle.


On the downside, fees in smaller towns haven’t kept pace with escalating city-firm fees, says CDLPA’s Murphy. “Right now there’s such an enormous financial discrepancy between the successful big-city practices and the general practices in non-urban centres,” he says.


To address the overall issue of attracting more young lawyers to smaller centres, the LSUC’s working group is hoping to educate law students about alternatives that exist, such as highlighting the opportunities available in non-urban centres through the creation of county web sites, greater presence at job fairs for counties that are underserved and want more lawyers, matching students who would like to go to non-urban areas with lawyers who are interested in retiring. The working group also hopes that financial incentives in terms of forgivable loans for lawyers starting up a practice in an underserved area will be created.


“I’m optimistic that, in fact, we can increase the interest in the non-urban centres,” says Murphy.

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