There was some interest after the 2008 recession hit the legal industry hard in Alberta, but still no bites. Finally a firm in Grande Prairie, Alta., showed interest and purchased the practice, where Byers continues to fill in on a very part-time basis. But the lawyers who now work in Fairview are only there part of the week, commuting 120 kilometres from Grande Prairie. “I don’t think we’ll see another lawyer here in this town of 3,000 again,” says Byers with sadness.
Cyril Gurevitch, himself now considering retirement options, knows Byers’ struggle all too well. As a former president of the Canadian Bar Association’s Alberta branch Gurevitch struggled with the issue, having seen many communities lose lawyers to retirement with no prospects waiting or willing to fill their shoes. “I spent a full year and a half to highlight the difficulty the smaller communities outside the larger cities are having recruiting and maintaining lawyers, particularly in the face of a clear demographic that is showing an aging population,” says Gurevitch, who practises in Grande Prairie. “We’re not keeping pace.”
While 52 per cent of Alberta’s population lived in the province’s two large cities in 2012, the great majority of lawyers live in those cities: 6,636 of 7,742. That leaves 1,106, or 15 per cent to serve the other 48 per cent of Albertans.
The average age of those who do practise in the rural areas is older and many don’t have transition plans. Often, when they retire, their practices close up as well.
Gurevitch sees it largely as a marketing issue, leaving the smaller communities that don’t have the resources of large firms at a disadvantage. The profession targeted communities like Medicine Hat, Red Deer, and Lethbridge encouraging the formation of groups including community leaders, business organizations, and lawyers to drive efforts. Some of them, including Grande Prairie, host an annual barbecue inviting law school students who hail from the community to return and meet with local lawyers and firms — where they might even rub shoulders with the provincial justice minister.
Those and other efforts in Alberta continue, with the CBA, the law society, law schools, and those in the small communities all addressing the problem. “I think we’re either in a state of crisis or a state of impending crisis,” says Ola Malik, co-chairman of the CBA-Alberta’s access to justice committee, and one of the members spearheading a publication focusing on small communities. “On a cultural level, can we change the conversation?”
Attracting a new lawyer to a small community takes work and planning and securing and maintaining an articling student may not necessarily translate into a successful recruitment. As a result, when it comes time for retirement, a lawyer may well shut the door and the law office disappears, leaving the community with one less law office and sometimes no access to lawyers or legal advice.
Malik’s goal is to make rural practices a viable option for law students. He dismisses the assumption there’s less to be made in smaller communities. In fact, he says, the opposite might well be true. And the challenges are there because running a general practice means you have to be sharp and knowledgeable on a wide spectrum of issues. “But here’s the incentive . . . it means you become a pillar of the community. It allows you to really become integrated in the community and you become woven into the community fabric,” he says.
In Nova Scotia, the pending retirement of several lawyers in Lunenburg led to a conference that helped attract 15 law school students to meet with lawyers. That led the profession to examine ways to fill similar voids in rural areas.
Nationally, many eyes are on British Columbia’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Initiative (REAL) launched in 2009 by the CBA-B.C. to address the current and projected shortage of lawyers practising in small communities and rural areas. B.C.’s numbers are similar to Alberta’s. Of the 10,760 lawyers practising in B.C. in 2012, the average age was 50 and about 86 per cent were based in the urban areas of Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminister.
During its first five years, the program provided summer opportunities for 79 students in the province. It has also been credited with changing how rural practices are perceived in law schools and successfully shifting the demographics of lawyers practising in small communities. The REAL program has averaged a 50-per-cent return rate year over year, meaning between 2009 and 2013 about 40 students remained in the communities in which they were placed through the initiative. This year another 11 students have been placed in rural or small communities.
Ontario, too, has identified a dearth of rural lawyers and the aging of the profession as a concern. “Currently 43 per cent of lawyers in Ontario are over 50 years of age. That percentage is often higher in rural areas of the province. This ‘greying of the bar’ is concerning to the Law Society of Upper Canada, particularly in regard to access to justice for the residents of rural and remote areas of the province,” says LSUC Treasurer Janet Minor.
Efforts during the past decade to try and mitigate the potential gap in legal services include making succession planning kits and templates available, periodic continuing professional development sessions, offering an annual conference for sole and small firm practitioners, and an online contract lawyer registry. Discussions have also included alternate business structures and whether new ways of providing legal services should be considered.
Ontario’s response to the lack of articling positions may also help to encourage young lawyers to practise in smaller communities. The Law Practice Program offered by Ryerson University in English and the University of Ottawa in French, provides experiential training and work placements in a variety of settings. While the focus for the traditional articling program is more on medium and large law firms, the work placements through the LPP are considered broader in scope and encompass more areas of law, preparing young lawyers for practice in different settings, including outside of the large urban areas. Also, Lakehead University’s new law school in Thunder Bay, Ont., focuses on training lawyers to work in rural and remote areas of the province. It provides an experiential training approach offering practical training that other young lawyers obtain through articling or the LPP.
Manitoba has taken a page out of the doctor recruitment handbook by adopting a student debt forgiveness program, which is still in the pilot stage. Law students can receive a forgivable loan of up to $25,000 per year during all three years of law school, with guaranteed summer employment in their own community. In return, 20 per cent of that loan is forgivable for every year they work as a lawyer in a small community. If they stay for five years, they don’t have to repay any of the $75,000. The first student in the program is in her third year, having returned to her home community of Thompson, Man. during the summer to work with a local law firm.
Recruiting for the next group of students has started. And although limited funding means a limited number of spaces, “small numbers can make a big difference in a small community,” says retiring Law Society of Manitoba CEO Allan Fineblit. It’s a start, he says, to replenish Manitoba’s bar, which is not only getting older, but also smaller, particularly in the north, where some communities are quite isolated.
The profession continues to search for other solutions. Both Manitoba and Alberta are interested in internationally trained lawyers, many of whom are in Canada working outside of their profession. And then there’s the profession itself finding opportunities in smaller communities. Some of the larger firms in Manitoba and Alberta have bought or formed associations with practices in small communities, which helps to ensure some coverage in those communities.
Some like Malik think there may be potential for matching the need for lawyers in western Canadian communities with Ontario’s need for articling positions. He sees some promise to further fill the gaps, which exist in rural Canada through those challenges. “The pity is there’s a need . . . but there is not a conduit between those two,” he says.