Big Issues for Small Town Law

Bryce Gardner 

Discussions related to access to justice often discuss the unaffordability of lawyers to a regular person,  or the over-complexity of the law to the non-legal mind. These issues become irrelevant though when there simply are not any legal resources available in your area, a problem all too common in today’s small town Canada.

Nationally, only 8.7% of new lawyers (having less than five years of experience) practice in a rural setting. A survey of the Law Society of British Columbia found that most students would leave the province before considering practicing in a rural area. [1] Of those lawyers who do work in small towns, most are nearing the age of retirement. In B.C. the typical age of a lawyer is about 48, but that can skew to upwards of 52 in smaller communities. In Castlegar, B.C. it’s 65. [2] This makes sense. Most law students come from the city, and why would they ever want to leave the bars, malls and restaurants of the big city to live in a town that only has two traffic lights and the only night club is the 24/7 McDonald’s lobby?

On top the lifestyle issues, there are many obstacles that present themselves to a future small town lawyer. Small town law firms do not have nearly as many resources to recruit and hire potential successors compared to their bigger counterparts. Small town lawyers often have to provide much more general advice on a broad range of topics, something that is hard to do in a legal world where people are encouraged to specialize. The biggest obstacle is the financial aspect. Small town firms often have to start from the ground up and law schools do not teach much in terms of practical business operations. Small town lawyers often earn less than a Vancouver or Toronto lawyer but work fewer hours. As with any obstacle, however, all that is needed to overcome these issues is some creative thinking and innovation.

The Canadian Bar Association’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Program (REAL) has already tried to fulfill some of the demand for small town lawyers across BC. By helping find summer positions and providing funding, this program helps to give law students a taste of small town law with the hope that they will stay.  In 2010, the Law Society of Manitoba introduced a program to offer a limited number of law students the opportunity to have their student debt forgiven (up to $25,000 per year of tuition and living expenses) if they work in an underrepresented community. [3] These programs do not do enough though, as they often only entice law students who already came from small towns. Enticing those born and raised in the city is much harder.

If the Canadian Bar Association wants to get more lawyers in small towns, I recommend they should try the following:

1)  Use lessons learned from this pandemic about working remotely. So many people have been working from home and so many people will not want to return to their commute once things return to the (new) normal. Many of the small town lawyers I have met work out of home offices and never had a commute to begin with. Additionally, many lawyers have been forced to conduct research online rather than relying on a physical library. Let people know that if they like working from home it is all the more possible as a small town lawyer.

2) Establish a legal incubator within relevant communities that would provide legal and business training to articling students and new lawyers while at the same time providing affordable and accessible legal services to people in rural and remote communities. [4]

3) Better educate law students about the benefits of small town lawyer life, such as more affordable housing and lower living costs, fewer working hours (on average) and generally more meaningful work right out of law school (rural lawyers often have complete control over an entire case).

4) Provide law students with shorter programs (such as one week) to job shadow rural lawyers and see what life is like, without having to commit several months over a summer.

Perhaps I have now convinced you to give small town law a try (though statistically, probably not).  Like any access to justice problem all we can do is think about it and try to figure out solutions. If anyone wants to discuss further I’ll be at McDonald’s tonight having a drink.

Sources:

[1] Tonya Lambert, “Promoting the Practice of Law in Rural, Regional & Remote Communities” (January 7, 2020), online (blog): Law Now <https://www.lawnow.org/promoting-the-practice-of-law-in-rural-regional-remote-communities/>. 

[2] Jim Middlemiss, “Small communities struggle to pry lawyers from Canada’s big cities, despite promise of jobs”, National Post  (Oct 1, 2013) <https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/small-communities-struggle-to-pry-lawyers-from-canadas-big-cities-despite-promise-of-jobs>.

[3] Lambert, supra note 1.

[4] Ibid.

 

 

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