There is much concern these days that rural areas are not attracting new lawyers to replace those who will be retiring en masse as baby-boomers continue to dominate demographic trends.
It would seem that law students generally don’t find the prospect of practising in a small community attractive. Recent research from the Law Society of British Columbia found that 81 per cent of students who had completed the law society’s Professional Legal Training Program plan to be in private practice after articling. However, the vast majority of those students intend to practise in city centers including Metro Vancouver and Victoria as well as larger Okanagan communities such as Kamloops and Kelowna. Furthermore, students are more likely to want to practise outside B.C. than in northern B.C. and other rural areas.
It appears the students’ intentions reflect the current landscape as few new lawyers are hanging their shingles in small towns. The question is, will those few who plan to practise in rural areas be enough to adequately serve those communities in the future?
As a rural lawyer for the past 30 years, I have witnessed a number of changes. In 1982, when I set up shop in Trail, B.C. — population 20,000 including surrounding area — there was some expectation that a rural practitioner would conduct a general practice, becoming proficient in both solicitor and barrister work. Only those files with which one wasn’t comfortable would be referred to a colleague either in town or elsewhere.
Over the last 20 years, there has been an inexorable march towards limiting practices to one, perhaps two, areas of law. In most small towns, there is not sufficient work in one area to keep a lawyer fully occupied and so we have lost a few who couldn’t keep their practices afloat in a rural setting.
Another hit has been court closures in smaller towns during the earlier part of the last decade, making it difficult or near-impossible to practise litigation in those locales.
These two factors have contributed to the demise of the general practitioner and made rural practice less attractive, which in turn has limited the public’s access to legal services. It’s a serious problem and in B.C. we are taking it seriously. The law society is providing financial support for the Rural Education and Access Program (REAL), initiated by the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association with funding from the Law Foundation, to help attract young lawyers to outlying areas.
The REAL program encompasses a number of strategies to address the current and projected shortage of lawyers practising in small communities and rural areas of the province. REAL will provide funding for second-year summer student placements as well as marketing and recruitment support to small-area firms.
The most recent statistics seem to indicate there is hope. According to figures released in July 2012 by the CBABC, about half of rural law firms in B.C. have hired new staff in the last five years – about 26 per cent are articling students and 37 per cent are newly called lawyers. About half of all rural lawyers also expect to hire in the next five years, with 34 per cent of those new hires being articled students and a further 29 per cent newly called lawyers.
Just over 50 per cent of all rural lawyers were aware of the REAL program prior to the CBA survey. Of those, 19 per cent, or about one in 10, rural law firms have participated in the program. After learning more about the program, 48 per cent reported they are likely to hire a student as part of the REAL program in the future.
It’s important that law students are aware of the benefits of small-town practice. Hardworking, passionate, and dedicated young lawyers can quickly make a name for themselves in a rural community such that they can set up a successful practice in relatively short order. Networking is much easier and overheads are significantly lower, making small town practice financially appealing.
In addition, increasing demand for work-life balance make rural practice attractive. In smaller centers, lawyers can achieve a highly desirable work-life balance more quickly and raise children in an environment that is well suited to young families. This prospect may be particularly appealing to women lawyers, who are leaving the profession in greater numbers, especially in their first five years of practice. The most frequently cited reason for their departures is the inability to manage family and other obligations given the demanding expectations of large firms.
Creative ideas are being tried throughout Canada and the U.S. to ensure rural communities don’t lose their professionals. Let’s hope, for the sake of the public we serve, these initiatives have a positive and lasting impact.
Bruce LeRose is the president of the Law Society of British Columbia as well as the managing partner of Thompson LeRose and Brown, a full service general practice law firm that has two offices in the West Kootenay region of B.C.