Peter Harte left his stable Ontario practice and moved north; way north. After his two-year sojourn working as a criminal lawyer in Nunavut came to an end, he and his wife, family lawyer Karen Wilford, went back to Midland, Ont. to sell their house. They then moved their family to Yellowknife, where they’ve spent the past 11 years and where they plan to remain until retirement.
Distant from friends and family deep in Canada’s North, they are experiencing an entirely different life from what they had enjoyed in Central Ontario. And with only four other criminal lawyers in the area, the pace of work can be challenging — Harte carries a regular caseload, which currently includes four homicides and rotations in bail court, where he inevitably ends up with more clients. He also travels with the circuit court.
But Harte figures he has reaped the benefits that have provided their two children a unique life experience. “It’s very rewarding and the reward is not just financial. You really feel like you’re making a difference.”
Despite the competition for positions at big city law firms and challenges many law students have in securing articling positions, urban centres continue to beckon. At the same time, access to lawyers in rural and smaller communities continues to be a concern within the profession — an issue exacerbated by the pending retirement of baby boomers. But the challenges of leaving the city for greener pastures or, in Harte’s case, whiter pastures, are surmountable and filled with rewards, he says.
Setting up his criminal practice wasn’t particularly daunting. As a sole practitioner who frequently travels across the North with the circuit court, Harte required little more than a laptop with software, internet connection and office space. His only employee is a part-time bookkeeper. But had he not had years of experience working as a lawyer previously, Harte figures it could have been a stressful time. As it was, he readjusted his approach after the law society indicated he should use cheques and maintain a paper record instead of returning unused trust funds electronically. He also now keeps a separate trust ledger instead of relying upon a single record for all his trust funds.
Although Aaron Grinhaus chose to set up his practice right in Toronto, he faced similar challenges. He had carefully plotted his approach, saving $15,000 to get himself started and allowing time to build his business. He was able to get a $10,000 unsecured line of credit, which he never used. Instead of advertising, he built a referral network and met with individuals over lunches and dinners, building a practice that now includes five lawyers.
Just the same, Grinhaus found that settling into a practice — generating the business, practising law and following the professional regulations — can prove overwhelming. “I had a lot of trouble figuring the ins and outs of the technical side, all the law society rules; for example, bookkeeping. I had a very unpleasant law society audit the first year because I was doing all my bookkeeping on Excel, which is a big mistake. I learned from that very quickly.”
The early considerations included how to get clients, what kind of office space he required or if he needed any at all and if he needed any help. As he maneuvered his way and found his footing, Grinhaus started fielding calls from other lawyers wanting to set up their own practice. Those calls didn’t slow down as time went on, so now he advises lawyers starting their own practices as an extension to his corporate and commercial practice, which involves advising professionals about the business and regulatory aspects of their professions.
Typically, Grinhaus sees three types of lawyers interested in going at it alone: experienced lawyers like himself, new ones who want their own business right away and the lawyer who is not far from retirement and wants to end their career practising on their own terms.
About two-thirds of the lawyers Grinhaus has advised have established practices in urban centres. But the other third, who have gone outside of major centres, are often moving from a big city, he says. Generally, those rural practices can be less expensive to operate because of cheaper rent and labour. But both settings have their own unique challenges. A big difference in operational requirements is the substantive area in which the lawyer is practising — some areas need more specialized resources.
The lawyers who have sought help from Grinhaus are looking for practical advice on day-to-day issues in addition to the information made readily available to the profession. They want to hear his thoughts on the various software available, hiring practices, pay scales, regulatory and professional concerns and what they need to get the ball rolling.
For the most part, Grinhaus says, starting a firm has become significantly easier and cheaper, thanks to the technological revolution. But the days of simply hanging a shingle and watching the business come in are gone. Getting clients takes work, and having a solid plan in place for business and marketing will help in the overall process and provide future goals and direction.
But going at it alone means taking on the responsibility for everything, including the tasks typically done by support staff in larger firms, such as getting professional registration and insurance. Setting up a system to avoid conflicts right at the start is also vital, says Ray Leclair, vice president of public affairs for Ontario legal insurer LawPro. And, in a smaller community, there is a greater chance of running into conflicts, particularly in one-lawyer towns, says Ian Hu, LawPro’s counsel, claims prevention and PracticePRO.
“As a rural lawyer, you have to set yourself to be ready for that and get your network in place and be comfortable in what areas of law you will be practising because one of the areas that LawPro cautions lawyers is not to dabble — taking claims or files you have very little knowledge of, unless you are prepared to do the work that’s required and that means educating yourself on that issue, making sure you’re up to date, maybe having a referral person to do that,” says Leclair.
There are also opportunities to prevent lawyers in small communities from becoming isolated, such as law associations and Canadian Bar Association sections. They can help in networking, mentoring and may offer referral opportunities.
Mentors have become an important aspect of the profession, replacing the old unspoken congenial approach among lawyers. “It is more and more important to have those resources available, to have somebody you can bounce things off of,” says Leclair. “Then you’re not so much on your own.”
Myron Plett started his legal career in Victoria, but just a year-and-a-half in, the economy took a downturn. The firm where he was working connected him to a lawyer in Ucluelet, on Vancouver Island’s west coast, 40 kilometres south of Tofino, the tiny community that’s become a summer paradise popular among visitors. He happened to be engaged in a book about Ucluelet at the time and his thoughts had increasingly turned to life in a small community, like the one where he was raised in Manitoba.
So, he spoke to the lawyer, who was ill and winding up his practice after not being able to find anyone to take it over. And, with his partner, Plett made the trip north and west and subsequently met with the lawyer several times before making him an offer to purchase the assets as well as his time to help get him settled. He also hired the staff.
With two experienced full-time assistants and a full-time business manager, who happens to be Plett’s partner, he has expanded the scope of the general practice, which has a large focus on family law. A challenge for the residents in a one-lawyer community is who gets the local lawyer in a divorce or a dispute and who must hit the road for representation.
“I am the only lawyer in a 100-kilometre radius,” Plett says. There are roughly 3,000 residents in the Ucluelet/Tofino area and, with the area’s First Nations, his practice serves a community of more than 5,000. Port Alberny, with its population of 30,000 people, is more than an hour away and is served by only four lawyers. A community is considered underserviced if it has fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 people.
Plett has seen other lawyers trying to establish practices in the area, but none have remained. “I think it’s very, very challenging to start a practice in a remote community because of the isolation, the learning curve. You are required to know an incredible amount and your client expectations are extremely lofty.
“It’s a bit daunting out here because when people come to me, you are their only hope.”
Plett has spent the past several years addressing the issue by becoming the chairman of the advisory board for the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Initiative of the British Columbia Chapter of the CBA, which aims to get law students out of the big city by connecting them with law firms and lawyers practising in outlying communities. The problem, he says, is not just access to justice but the social harm that arises when people cannot meaningfully interact with the legal system.
But Plett has been satisfied with both his rural practice and living a bit further afield.
Next to marrying his wife, Grinhaus says, starting his own practice was the best decision he’s ever made. “If they come to me and say: ‘I’m thinking of starting my own firm,’ I say: ‘Do it.’ Because it was one of the best decisions,” he says. “I never regretted it for one second.”