From a start-up in 1953 by sole practitioner Basil Sproule, who later became a magistrate, McLean McKenzie & Topfer has grown into one of the biggest law firms on the North-West coast of Tasmania.
With offices in Burnie and Smithton, the firm has 13 employees, including two solicitors, two conveyancing clerks, an office manager and four full-time assistants. Partner Geoff McLean has a 41-year history with the firm, having joined in 1968, while husband and wife Colin McKenzie and Leanne Topfer complete the partnership.
The firm has employed more than 30 young lawyers in the practice, according to Topfer.
"Often they would stay for one to two years and get experience and move on, which is very frustrating, because you actually spend a lot of energy and time and money training young practitioners, and then they decide often to go travelling or to go back to a big city," she says.
The difficulty in retaining solicitors in regional areas on a long-term basis is going to affect succession and access to justice in 10 to 15 years, predicts Topfer.
But working in a regional area, she says, means that staff are required to be more multi-skilled, compared to bigger firms.
"We actually have to go to court, so we have active roles as both barristers and solicitors, not just one or the other," she says.
The internet has had a major impact on the firm's access to the court system as well, says Topfer. An associate judge used to come up to Burnie on circuit every six weeks, but now conducts his sessions via video link. Another handy resource is the central library in Hobart - which is jointly funded by government and lawyers in Tasmania - from which the firm can get copies of legal resources emailed to them almost instantly.
Meanwhile, the firm is a "bit of a jack of all trades" but they tend to specialise to a degree, says Topfer. Its practice areas include civil and commercial litigation, family law, workers compensation, wills and leases as well as less serious criminal matters.
Working in a regional firm means that work/life balance is more sustainable and allowed Topfer to work part-time while caring for her children, she says.
"Obviously the downside is undoubtedly we make much less money, probably particularly than on the mainland and in bigger cities, but that's a choice we've made," she says.
- Sarah Sharples
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