There are big advantages to practising law in Canada’s smallest province. Foremost among them: collegiality.
While lawyers in most cities and provinces cite collegiality as a feature of their legal community, it is ingrained in the fabric of legal life in Prince Edward Island. “We are exceptionally collaborative. Every lawyer for the most part does business with every other lawyer. It’s hard to get your knickers in a knot because you know you’ll be working with this person next month,” says Derek Key, a partner with Key Murray Law in Summerside.
Familiarity does not breed contempt on P.E.I. but rather co-operation and civility. “It is rare to hear even a suggestion of a lawyer engaging in sharp practice,” notes Robert MacGregor, a partner with Campbell Lea in Charlottetown. “The vast majority of lawyers in Prince Edward Island recognize that all lawyers have the same demands on their time, legal issues to navigate, clients to advise, and deadlines to meet.” That common understanding extends to helping each other, he adds. “It is not uncommon for a lawyer to call a lawyer at another law firm to ask them questions about a particular legal issue, seek their opinion, or at times request a precedent document.”
It is also not unusual for lawyers to run into members of the judiciary in the course of their day. “It’s not uncommon to see a judge on the street and call them by their first name,” says Mary Lynn Kane, P.E.I. managing partner with Cox & Palmer in Charlottetown. “It can be a bit awkward,” she notes, “but we’ve known each other forever.”
The friendly, helpful nature of the legal community on the island can be traced in part to the size of that community. There are roughly 146,000 people living in P.E.I. and 239 practising lawyers. That means lawyers often see one another and work with one another inside and outside the office and the courtroom. “We have contact not just on files but also on our charitable work and our professional work,” says Jennifer MacPherson, a partner with Stewart McKelvey in Charlottetown. “Reputation with other counsel is so important here. You see them over and over.”
The bar’s small size and co-operative spirit means most lawyers are involved in some way with the local branch of the Canadian Bar Association and the Bar Society of Prince Edward Island. It is also quite common to see lawyers in various governance or committee roles with post-secondary institutions in the province, hospital boards, non-profit organizations, sporting organizations, community development boards, and charitable organizations, notes MacGregor. “It would be difficult to identify a board or organization in Prince Edward Island of which a lawyer is not a member.” Contributing to the community is not just expected, it is welcomed. “We enjoy a very privileged existence. Therefore, it is very important that we give back,” says Kane (whose sister is pro golfer Lorie Kane).
She points to bar calls as an example of how deep-rooted giving back and supporting each other is. On the island, bar calls are conducted individually. A significant number of lawyers will go to every call.
Speakers, such as judges, will address the group, which includes family. “That members of the bar will take the time — one to one-and-a-half hours in the middle of the day — to go to a bar call speaks to our culture,” says Kane. “We work hard and we work hard to build our legal community.” Giving back is part of the legal culture and work ethic of lawyers in P.E.I. “Dedication to the community is everything.
These lawyers are true Islanders,” says Gary Scales, regional lead partner for P.E.I. with McInnes Cooper in Charlottetown.
The active involvement of lawyers in their profession and their community makes for an engaged and supportive bar, but it also comes with a reality lawyers on the island clearly understand. “In a smaller community, there is no such thing as a work/life divide. It doesn’t exist,” says Key. “You are practising law in the grocery store. You are practising law in the service station. Effectively, it is kitchen-table law.”
The nature of legal practice in P.E.I. mirrors that in many small and large communities. Return clients and referrals are an important foundation. “Generally, for Prince Edward Island lawyers, legal business comes from individuals and privately owned businesses within the province, governmental boards and organizations, post-secondary institutions, banks and other financial institutions, small- and medium-sized enterprises, and energy utilities,” says MacGregor.
For larger firms like Cox & Palmer, having a presence on the island sends an important message to clients on both sides of the Confederation Bridge (which connects P.E.I. to the rest of Canada). “We feel it is important to be in the communities where our clients are,” says Kane. “That’s the culture of our office.”
The types of business that lawyers in the province deal with consist of all areas of law, but particularly real property, secured financing, estate planning, family law, litigation, taxation, business law, immigration, information technology, securities, municipal law, insurance, intellectual property, labour and employment, energy, and environmental components. Though the province’s primary industries are agriculture, fishing, and tourism, growth industries are in aerospace, marine technology, bioscience, health care, renewable energy, and information technology. “Each of these areas results in legal work and necessitates lawyers being knowledgeable of emerging industries and their legal needs,” says MacGregor.
The business landscape is also evolving, notes Scales. “There is a certain vibe around innovation, immigration, and inbound investment. It’s palatable, and Islanders are ready to embrace it.”
There are also anomalies that present challenges for lawyers on P.E.I. “Our real estate fees are very fair and haven’t changed substantially in 30 years,” notes Bloyce McLellan, a partner with McLellan Brennan in Summerside. “The government has back-doored a lot of taxes such as HST, transfer tax, registry fees,” he adds. “The government taxes often far outweigh legal fees many times on a property transaction, but we have to collect it from the client, and it makes it very expensive. You know what happens to the messenger.”
MacPherson points out that while the quality of life on the island is less hectic and friendlier, lawyers are busy. “There is a perception that lawyers in P.E.I. have a more laid-back practice, but lawyers here work very hard plus do pro bono work,” she says. “We don’t have the one-hour commute, but we fill that time with something else.”
The nature of the work is also changing, says Key. “Not that many years ago, there were really no specialities. Over the last 15 to 20 years, there has been a move to people who do exclusively family law or commercial law.” However, he notes, “it’s still a relationship-based business. I’ve had the same clients over the last 25 years.” The long-term relationships many lawyers have with their clients helps keep the professional fires burning, as well as the bills paid. “We generally know very well the clients we serve, and because you know them well, there is a heightened desire to serve them well,” says Kane.
That makes a law practice on the Island very personal. “In the P.E.I. market, clients tend to identify with individual lawyers more than law firms — whether it’s a lawyer’s experience with top industries or a lawyer’s involvement with the community,” says Scales.
As with legal communities across the country, lawyers and the judiciary in P.E.I. are grappling with issues of access to justice. “Lawyers recognize that legal costs can be expensive. Court time can also be difficult to obtain; there are so many matters brought before the court or in the process of litigation that the courts’ schedules are extremely busy,” notes MacGregor.
The legal community is looking for island ways to help address access to justice. “The bar here is sensitive to access to justice and go about their business quietly doing what they can to assist the public,” says McLellan. He notes, for example, that “much of our litigation is done on a contingency fee basis, and this is very attractive for the public and gives even the poorest person great access to justice particularly from the tort bar.”
Many of the lawyers practising in P.E.I. grew up on the island, and after completing law school elsewhere (there is no law school on the island), returned home. They knew what they were in for. Key is a three-minute commute from work and runs his own small farm when he’s away from the office.
MacPherson lives in the country; 15 minutes by car in one direction and she’s at her office in Charlottetown; 15 minutes in the other direction and she’s at the beach. “We’re lucky because we have such a beautiful province and we can enjoy the lifestyle here, but we work hard. We put in a lot of hours,” MacPherson notes.
Lawyers thinking of moving to the island must understand the realities of small-town life, says Key. “It’s a balance between everybody knows your business and everybody cares about your business.”
P.E.I. by the Numbers
- 324 Total membership of the P.E.I. bar
- 239 Number of law society members in P.E.I. with active practising status
- 146 Number of lawyers practising in firms in P.E.I.
- 20 Number of lawyers practising out of province
- 72 Number of non-practising lawyers
- 14 Number of retired lawyers
- $165,505 Average price of a home in P.E.I. (according to statistics from the Canadian Real Estate Association released May 2015)
Sources: Law Society of Prince Edward Island, Canadian Real Estate Association