FOR the first time in many years, succession planning for many regional firms is under threat. No longer can many law firms hire and keep younger lawyers to the extent that such planning would be possible.
“Until the last few years I had no concern about finding young solicitors here to carry on the practice. But I don’t have the same confidence now … it has substantially diminished because there are not any suitable young people willing to come out here.”
Tim O'Brien, 63, has been principal of O’Brien Solicitors in Berri for 40 years. He said his succession plans has been placed in jeopardy recently with the departure of two of the firm's lawyers.
The law firm services the Riverland region of South Australia, which consists of five communities with a total population of 35,000.
O'Brien is frustrated by the difficulty in retaining staff as the lure of the city drags all up-and-coming lawyers and even partners away. He recently had to wave farewell to two partners, from the local community, who had been lured by the "bright lights of the city".
“I have had fairly continuous succession of one or two young graduates at a time, who might stay for 12 months or two years then it's back to the city because of the lure of the bright lights and coffee shops and everything else.”
O’Brien has had to continue to work six-day weeks to cover the work left by reduced staff. The three to five partners have recently dropped to two partners.
The failure to recruit and retain lawyers to regional communities has resulted in an over-reliance on government-funded community legal aid bodies that do not have the same expertise as commercial firms, said O’Brien.
“My view is that assistance would be achieved far more effectively from a cost point-of-view and professional point-of-view if the effort was made to subsidise law firms for doing that work,” he said.
“Then you could look to build your law firms into greater mass. And if you have got more lawyers in the firm then you have a better chance of retaining people because they have the comfort of discussing legal issues with colleagues.”
O’Brien believes there should be more government financial incentives provided to attract law graduates to work in regional Australia, similar to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme assistance provided to medical graduates.
“The medical graduates have substantial support to come out to the country. They get fees after hours, they get a financial subsidy to come out to the country, but this doesn’t exist in the legal profession.”