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The benefits and drawbacks of practising in rural areas

After dealing with drought, catastrophic bushfires, floods and a global pandemic, rural lawyers have had to support their communities more than ever before. These lawyers outlined the benefits of doing so.

user iconLauren Croft 01 September 2021 Big Law
The benefits and drawbacks of practising in rural areas
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According to the fifth annual National Profile of Solicitors report, solicitors in country and rural areas have experienced the least amount of growth over the last decade, increasing by just 9 per cent. In NSW, around 12 per cent of the state’s 36,000 solicitors live and work outside of main cities, a figure which has remained broadly consistent for some years.

Law Society of NSW president Juliana Warner said that whilst rural and regional solicitors have had to deal with a lot over the past few years, there are many positives to working outside of cities.

“Solicitors are very much part of the fabric of the community that they serve, and in the past two and a half years, they have had to deal with the impact of successive crises, including drought, a catastrophic bushfire season, floods in some areas, and a global pandemic,” she said.  


“Local solicitors were at the coalface of recovery efforts in bushfire ravaged communities and played an important role in helping their clients to navigate the trauma of the disaster, and the challenges of recovering from it.”

While the benefits of working in a country practice vary depending on how far into their career a solicitor is and where they’re practising, Ms Warner said there are a few overarching positives.

“In general, the benefits that solicitors talk about relate to having a less expensive lifestyle, reduced working hours, working closer to home, which equals more time with family and friends, and the sense of community and collegiality with other members of their local profession that working in the country offers,” she said.

“For younger solicitors, the opportunities can be greater in small, regional firms, where they are exposed to a broader range of matters and clients and the rich variety of practice that the law has to offer. And they can benefit from working with older, more experienced practitioners who have lived and worked in the area for a long time and have well established local networks and involvement in the local community.”

Peter Long, director and principal of Rural Law with Peter Long in Gunnedah, NSW, said that he chose to work in a rural area because of his “deep love of everything west of the Great Divide, particularly its energy.”

“Given that most of the legal matters are the same wherever you practice, being able to have a stimulating career yet live and work in a community where you personally know many of its members, have far more time to enjoy family, friends, sports, nature and the magnificent landscapes and can avoid so much traffic and noise is simply profound,” he said.

Kirsty Salvestro, founder of Cooma-based Flourish Family Law, said that working in a rural area offers a better work/life balance – which she wouldn’t trade for anything.

“I didn’t want to be working long hours and travelling for two hours each day to get to and from work. Time is precious. I love being part of a small community, where you can create long lasting relationships and impacts with the work you do. The impact you can make by being part of and working in a rural community is something special and shouldn’t be taken lightly,” she said.

“There is also the benefit of being well known and sought out for your advice in a small community as referrals are the backbone of most businesses here, well mine certainly is.

“My community has been so supportive of everything I have done in my career, from my initial partnership, my new boutique firm, to the writing of my first book. The support is overwhelming and I think this has grown from being an active member in the community and being able to form such important and honest relationships, I was not able to do this in the city.”

Jacqueline Drewe, a solicitor at Campbell Paton & Taylor in Orange added that you really notice the sense of community in rural areas.

Everyone’s quite nice and friendly and collegial, we work together generally quite well. It’s generally a more positive atmosphere across the profession. The city practices just seem more cut-throat,” she said.

Out here, we’re all in it together, we tend to get along quite well and can always talk through a matter with someone, it’s more approachable and more friendly.”

Ms Drewe grew up in Sydney but spent a lot of time in Orange throughout her childhood and knew that the area was somewhere she wanted to end up.

I spent a lot of time out here as a kid and knew I would end up back here in some way. It’s a lovely area, we get to finish work on a Friday and go to wineries on the weekend,” she added.

Whilst I loved where I worked in Sydney, just being able to get out and see those big open skies, you can’t go past that.

However, Ms Drewe added that particularly during the pandemic, rural communities don’t have as much support as they do in cities, citing a 12 month wait for psychologists in Orange. 

Particularly during COVID I think people have really suffered, because we don’t have that availability out here,” she said.

Ms Salvestro said that for her, the pandemic has shown how comfortable she is at home in Cooma.

“I have been working from home for three years now and I think that this has been much easier to achieve and widely accepted living in a rural community than in the city,” she said.

“I would encourage anyone looking for a calmer and more peaceful life for them and their families to look at rural practice.”

However, living in a rural community also has its challenges, community attitudes and expectations among them. Ms Salvestro said that “wearing many hats” in the community can occasionally have its drawbacks.

“One day we might be a lawyer to someone, the next we may be facing them at a committee meeting, school event or sporting event. This can sometimes be uncomfortable for both parties and even the children, but other times it is great as there is a greater level of interaction with your community which grows respect and relationships,” she said.

“We are also faced with ongoing community attitudes and expectations – the perception that rural lawyers are not as experienced or specialised as in comparison to city firms. I think this is more of a ‘small firm’ versus ‘larger firm’ perception but it also often flows over to rural practitioners.”

Furthermore, Ms Salvestro added that attracting and retaining good talent in rural areas is another key challenge.

“It goes without saying that one of the biggest challenges for rural firms is the hire and retention of new lawyers,” she said.

“There are so many factors as to why this is, but I often hear that it is remuneration and ongoing career prospects. The impact I see this having is the limited availability of access to services to our community.”

Ms Drewe said that an additional challenge in Orange is access to technology – but that the pandemic had paved the way for work to be done remotely with ease.

“It’s so easy to take good internet for granted in Sydney but the NBN out here is so unreliable and our phone service is patchy – which sounds archaic, but is just a reality,” she said.

Technology is definitely changing access to justice. Before COVID and the courts all moved online, the cost and delay in matters getting brought before a court was extraordinary. People would have to drive from western NSW to Sydney or Canberra. 

“But certainly, with COVID, it’s been better for us out here with courts moving more online, people can see that you can do exactly the same work with the same practice area from the country.”

Ms Warner added that challenges differ depending on region – and include issues such as limited court resources, poor telecommunications infrastructure, the distance required to travel between courts in more remote regions or the impact of natural disasters.

“The issue of remote working is a hot topic at the moment – obviously many practitioners are working from home right now due to the state-wide restrictions – it will be interesting to see which practices change, and which stay the same post-pandemic, and how that will affect the profession,” she said.

“Many rural practitioners have spoken of the benefits that can come from having online access to clients and courts without having to travel or retain an agent to appear in a matter in the city.

“One of the silver linings from the pandemic has come from having to move our CPD and events program online. While nothing can replace the social interaction that comes with attending face to face CPD and events, the online format has certainly increased access for solicitors living in regional areas, to the point that we’ve seen registrations increase by 300 per cent in the past 12 months.”

Mr Long agreed, but said that technology access in more remote areas needs to keep improving in order for rural lawyers to continue practising.

“Technology has substantially closed the gap between the working environment for urban lawyers and rural lawyers but poor mobile phone and wireless internet reception continue to plague the bush and is certainly getting worse,” he said.

“However, the benefits far outweigh the challenges.”