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Greener pastures

Cover Story
|Written By Robert Todd
Greener pastures

Joel Kennedy sat down with a road map after being called to the Ontario bar in 1974. Raised in the burgeoning city of Brampton, Ont., he wanted to pursue a more relaxed lifestyle and was looking for some direction. He focused his gaze on the low-key and lush northern part of the province, and after a few calls to friends found an opening in the scenic town of Parry Sound. He has been there ever since. “It’s a good life,” says Kennedy. “I can look out the window here and see my boat in the water and sneak away early if I want to.”

He also loves his job, and has pulled in a six-figure income most years. He plans to continue working and “count paperclips” at the office until he dies. But at 64, Kennedy would like to start winding down his practice, passing complex files along to an associate. That’s where things get tricky. After a long search last year, he was able to attract an articling student, who has stayed on as a junior. But it didn’t turn into the long-term fix he was looking for; the young lawyer’s family commitments will take him to the big city next year. “So I’m now back to scratching my head and wondering what to do,” says Kennedy. He desperately wants to avoid “turning the key and walking away,” a sad step many of his colleagues have been forced into.

Kennedy is just one among thousands of lawyers across Canada who have provided legal services to smaller communities for decades, but are now in the twilight of their careers. Many would like to spend less time in the office and better enjoy the fruits of their hard work over the years. But those wishes have been foiled by the fact no one is there to take their place.

The converging forces of many lawyers in small towns nearing retirement and a lack of younger counsel willing to take their place has done more than dampen the retirement plans of many senior lawyers. It also threatens to create an access to justice crisis. If too few young lawyers will practise in rural settings, who will offer legal services to the millions of Canadians who choose to live there? With that question in the background, Canada’s legal community is scrambling to convince more young lawyers to resist the lure of the large-firm, big-city lifestyle, and restock the rural bar.

That a dwindling number of young lawyers view smaller communties as a desirable destination was demonstrated by a 2007 survey of British Columbia articling students. The results showed 82.5 per cent planned to pursue their legal careers in Vancouver or Victoria. That result reflects statistics showing 80 per cent of lawyers practising in B.C. do so in the metropolitan areas of those two cities.

It’s a trend seen from coast to coast. Law Society of Saskatchewan executive director Tom Schonhoffer says a “high percentage” of lawyers in the province are between 45 and 65 years old. He points out that this age group is dominant in rural areas, and that “anecdotally we know of communities where there are no lawyers under 50 years of age.” In Manitoba, there were 215 lawyers practising outside of the province’s largest city, Winnipeg, in 2007 — that’s five fewer than there were over 80 years ago. The Law Society of Upper Canada issued a report in 2005 outlining the declining number of lawyers practising outside of urban centres. It noted that most lawyers operating within solo practices or small firms do so in rural parts of the province. Further, it found that in 1995 young lawyers made up 20 per cent of all sole practitioners, but that number had declined to just nine per cent by 2002. In Nova Scotia, 78 per cent of all lawyers practise in the major centres of Halifax and Sydney, according to the barristers’ society. The Law Society of the Northwest Territories indicates about 125 of the 141 lawyers who live in the territory work in Yellowknife. Most Canadian towns with a population under 20,000 would be overjoyed by such a glut of legal professionals.

These striking figures have certainly caught the attention of law organizations, which believe that, despite modern teleconferencing technologies, lawyers must have a permanent presence in small towns. “It really comes down to what we mean by access to justice,” says Marjorie Hickey, president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. She points out that many legal problems the rural bar is counted on to address — such as family and criminal law matters — require quick access to counsel. “Not everyone has the luxury of transportation to cities. The reality is with the provision of legal advice, at least in various areas, you still do need face-to-face contact.”

A range of strategies has been adopted to help make sure that continues to happen. One of the most aggressive campaigns has been taking place in B.C., where the Canadian Bar Association B.C. branch has received about $800,000 from the Law Foundation of B.C. for its Rural Education and Access to Lawyers initiative. The three-year, multi-pronged attack began in 2009 and includes fully funded summer student positions, funding for a career officer to promote jobs in small towns, and co-operative efforts with local bars to support articling positions and recruitment. In its first year, the program helped 11 students land summer placements with firms in small towns across the province, while 21 were placed this year. About half of those were expected to land articling positions with the firm they summered with.

Michael Litchfield, a sole practitioner in Kelowna, B.C., who acts as the regional legal careers officer with the initiative, says the effort seems to be bearing fruit. “Over the life of this program, I’ve seen a bit of a shift in the debate around rural practice,” he says. “It’s something that’s being discussed more in schools, more by the career offices.” He hopes the program receives permanent funding after the law foundation’s three-year commitment ends next year.

Meanwhile, Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., will soon become the province’s first new law school in three decades. Created largely due to lobbying efforts by a local community concerned about access to justice, the institution is expected to cater to students planning to practise in small B.C. communities. It will offer curriculum licensed from the University of Calgary’s law school, with extra attention paid to challenges faced by lawyers in small towns. About 60 students are expected to gain admittance each year, with preference given to those who, during the application process, express an interest in practising in a small community. “We will have a requirement that students give a personal statement which includes things like what they’ve done in the past and what they plan to do in the future,” says Chris Axworthy, the school’s founding dean and a former attorney general of Saskatchewan. “We would hope to go above and behind grade point averages and LSATs to ensure that we attract students who can fulfil this particular focus. . . . There’s not much point in saying we want to ensure there are more lawyers in smaller communities and more aboriginal lawyers if you don’t do anything about it. All law schools have preferential programs for various students, and we would do the same thing.”

There is optimism that Thompson Rivers will do a better job of keeping graduates on track than a comparable effort in Nunavut. The Akitsiraq Law School started out as a one-time effort between Nunavut Arctic College and the University of Victoria to train new lawyers for the territory. While the 11 students admitted to the program received law degrees in 2005, less than half were practising in the territory within three years.

Law students are also being courted in Manitoba, where the province’s law society hopes to coax more to practise outside of Winnipeg. Concluding that people who grew up in rural communities are more likely to practise law there, the program aims to help them afford law school in the first place. It will do so by offering forgivable loans to two students admitted to the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law for September 2011. The loans will help cover tuition and living expenses of up to $25,000 per year of law school. Forgiveness of 20 per cent for each year spent practising in an under-serviced community will serve as an incentive.

The initiative is one of many devised by an LSM special committee struck to target the rural access to justice problem. The group also decided the law society must find ways to make rural practice more manageable. For instance, many sole practitioners in small towns find it nearly impossible to take time away from the office, whether it’s for a little rest and relaxation or a maternity leave. The latter has become a particular point of contention for women who want to practise in smaller communities and have a family. Cutting them out of the picture would create a significant roadblock for any efforts to replenish the rural bar, as women make up more than half of law school graduates. Manitoba’s law society hopes to address that issue with a locum service. The society expects the program to be up and running next year.

Manitoba is also targeting the isolation felt by some lawyers in rural communities by creating a social networking site — a Facebook for lawyers, if you will. It will allow lawyers to interact with their peers who struggle with similar practice issues but are located too far off to meet face to face. The society believes this offering will prove particularly attractive to the younger lawyers the initiative is largely aimed at. Law Society of Manitoba CEO Allan Fineblit has some other ideas that could help further ease the shortage — everything from better access to legal institutions such as courthouses and land titles offices, to a northern law school. Those ideas are very preliminary, but in the meantime he hopes the current offerings will get things moving in the right direction. After all, there is more at stake than a loss of access to justice, he says. “Lawyers actually contribute a lot to their community outside of their legal work,” says Fineblit. “Lawyers do a tremendous amount of community service work, and that disappears from a community. It makes a community less attractive to others who might want to move there, like other professionals who are already in short supply in some of these communities.”

In Ontario, the LSUC’s efforts have included the creation of an articling registry, which has helped lawyers in rural areas better advertise openings. The society hoped to build on that effort with an articling symposium highlighting opportunities at small firms. The November event included a panel discussion and interactive workshop titled, “Life in a small firm or small community,” followed by a career fair and networking reception.

Robert Zochodne is an Oshawa, Ont., lawyer and chairman of the County & District Law Presidents’ Association, an organization that largely represents lawyers practising in solo and small-firm settings in small communities. He believes job symposiums like this will play a big role in bringing fresh blood to the bar in smaller communities. Many law students from smaller towns remain unaware of the kind of opportunities available in their own backyards, suggests Zochodne, and symposiums offer the direct contact with senior lawyers they need in order to get a clear picture of what’s out there. “There is a large group of law students who don’t really want to go to the large firms,” says Zochodne. “They want to go back to their communities, and this is a way to help them make that happen.”

The sales pitch that people like Zochodne make to future lawyers about life as a lawyer in a small town might make you wonder why there’s a shortage at all. Take Amber Biemans, who practises in Humboldt, Sask., and became a partner in her law firm at 28 years old. Biemans ended up in the town of about 6,000, located an hour and a half from Saskatoon, when she was called to the bar in 2006. Even then, the town was in dire need of more lawyers, as her job search demonstrated. “I just stopped in and I said, ‘Do you guys think you need another lawyer?’” recalls Biemans, who grew up in a town about 30 minutes from Humboldt. “As they were walking me around the office, they actually asked me if I could start the next day. There was so much work; every desk was just piled with files.” A year after starting at the four-lawyer firm, now called Behiel Will & Biemans, one of the partners asked her if she would like to buy 33 per cent of his 48-per-cent share in the firm. The query seemed preposterous aimed at a lawyer who was just months into practising and racked with student loans. But after crunching the numbers with her accountant, Biemans realized it was a remarkable opportunity. They estimated she would pay off the purchase price in three years, but she knocked it off within two.

“When my colleagues tell me that practising in rural Saskatchewan is not lucrative, they couldn’t be farther from the truth,” she says. And the well is unlikely to go dry any time soon. “There’s nothing we specifically do to create business. It’s just honestly a matter of opening the doors. The clients just come.” She admits she has benefited from the firm’s long-standing presence in the community, and notes that loyalty runs deep in small towns. But the firm has kept those ties strong by making sure fees are low, and that clients can come to it for all of their legal needs. 

Hard work has also been in the mix, notes Biemans. She and her partners typically work evenings, but nothing like the all-night grind that many large-firm lawyers endure when a major file comes their way. Few corporate lawyers, for example, would have been able to take the three-week trip to Scotland that Biemans enjoyed last year. (Notice to any young lawyers out there: she says her firm could use another associate.) “It’s a great job. Even being in law school, I anticipated it was going to be good, but I never anticipated it would be this great,” she says. “Practising in rural Saskatchewan is something that, if you have the opportunity to do, you should definitely take advantage of it.”

Christine McLeod says the same thing about practising in Temiskaming Shores, Ont. After being called to the bar in 2007, she began practising in the northern town with a population of about 10,000. Her firm, Evans Bragagnolo & Sullivan LLP, is based in Timmins, Ont., and she practises from the satellite office.

McLeod cites perks of small-town lawyering such as a short stroll to the courthouse and an opportunity to do interesting work sooner. While many of her law school peers still spend their days at bail hearings, she takes on complete files, and even serves as the president of the local law association. One of the only downsides is her quasi-celebrity status in the community, which often prompts her to wear a hoodie and sunglasses in an effort to shop for groceries in peace. That’s a small price to pay in exchange for a comparable salary to that of her Toronto peers, without the sky-high cost of living. “You don’t need to make the same amount of money to enjoy the good life,” she says, pointing out that an executive home goes for around $300,000 in the area.

Yet all of these attractions have failed to persuade enough lawyers to set up shop in the town. Senior lawyers have filled the gap so far, but McLeod notes that three lawyers in her district retired or significantly dialed down their practices over the past year. She suggests it’s only a matter of time before clients are left in the lurch. “There isn’t a shortage of lawyers in the sense that clients can’t find a lawyer to represent them,” she says. “The problem is that the lawyers who are there can’t retire.” At the same time, clients are already finding it difficult to retain a lawyer on certain types of matters, she says, with family law being the most pressing area where more lawyers are needed right now.

As McLeod notes, it appears that senior practitioners willing to grind out their retirement years in the office have thus far helped postpone a severe access-to-justice crisis in most of Canada’s small communities. But it’s equally obvious that the time will come when they’re no longer around to fill the gap.

Back in Parry Sound, Kennedy continues to grapple with his daunting search for a successor. He wonders why it’s been so hard to find someone with similar ambition to that which drove him away from the big city 36 years ago. “I just want somebody to take it over,” he says. “You’ve got a good clientele base, all kinds of wills and corporate books and that kind of stuff. It’s a shame to just hand everything back to the client when you’ve developed a good core business.”

He also deals with the fact that, if he fails to find someone to take over, the six office workers he employs will be out on the street and unlikely to find similar work nearby. “It would be sad to just have to turn out the lights, as they say, when the time comes,” he laments. “Certainly if I got sick at this age it would be pretty traumatic.”

  • aquitaine
    I practice in a small city by the sea, and I still remember the gradual dawning envy of my slightly supercilious colleagues from Montreal, when they left their corporate towers for a visit many years ago. "Here is my office (elegant, Victorian, air conditioned AND with windows that open, parking right behind) - "here is my apartment (balcony on the water, heated underground parking, two blocks from the office, $850 per month)" - "here is my boat (moored at the yacht club under my balcony)" - "there is the courthouse (two blocks in the other direction)" - "there is our excellent art cinema (NEXT to my office)" - "there is the Law Society office (same building as the art cinema)"..."and now let's run down the coast a few miles for a lobster supper (fresh that day, $19.95)". And if you put up your hand at a meeting you can be Law Society council member - CBA treasurer - teach sessionally at the university - chair any committee you like - get national trips on someone else's dime - make real contributions to your community and the profession.

    Tough life. But my partners and I are in our fifties and sixties and we CAN'T find a young lawyer to take over, after having many start and move to government or bigger firms. The problem is that we can't pay a big secure starting salary and the work is hard, varied and demanding - though plentiful and dependable. Any junior has to work hard, take risks and "eat what she kills"...and the reality of this sort of practice is a challenge. And the lure of the bigger firms and bigger cities is very strong.

    Thanks for your article!
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    There are many reasons for the dearth of younger lawyers willing to practise in areas that lack non-stop traffic jams, poor air quality, and higher rates of major crime, but here are just three of them:
    1. The failure to open a law school in Northern Ontario
    2. Convocation's blunder in reducing articling to 9 1/2 months
    3. Convocation's blunder in passing a mandatory CLE regime that makes it noticeably more difficult and time consuming for lawyers in small communities to meet the minimum hours requirement compared to lawyers in giant firms who can simply pad down the hall to their board rooms a few times a year.
  • Name already taken
    I know many small town lawyers who want to sell their practice for big bucks. Puff up your practice for the kill - pie in the sky.