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The regional exodus

The regional exodus

The downturn is a challenge for regional and remote lawyers, but it is staff shortages and succession planning that are really causing the most problems outside of metropolitan areas, writes…

The downturn is a challenge for regional and remote lawyers, but it is staff shortages and succession planning that are really causing the most problems outside of metropolitan areas, writes Angela Priestley

The words "regional", "rural" and "remote", when applied to law, can capture many forms of legal practitioners.

From a sole practitioner in Broome, to a three-partner practice on the outskirts of the Clare Valley, up to a firm of 90 employees in far north Queensland - outside Australia's big metropolitan cities lawyers are living a markedly different lifestyle to their metropolitan colleagues. They are, however, still sharing some similar fundamental challenges: namely the immediate impacts of the fallout from the global financial crisis, critical staffing issues and the difficulties around succession planning.

Still, regional law firms also face a markedly different challenge to their inner-city equivalents.

While lawyers are still graduating from universities in droves - at a rate faster than the general population growth, according the Law Society of NSW - they are choosing to remain in, or migrate to, big metropolitan cities to find work. As law firms face the current challenge of the global recession and the realisation that the profession is starting to look considerably over-lawyered, regional law firms are struggling to keep and attract enough talent to meet their needs. According to a recent study undertaken by the Law Council of Australia that surveyed 1185 regional and rural legal practitioners across the country, 43 per cent of principals revealed that their practice currently does not have enough lawyers to service its client base.

Meanwhile, with a large number of lawyers - many of whom are sole practitioners - expecting to retire from practice in the next five years, the problem appears likely to escalate dramatically. Of the sole practitioners who made up 46 per cent of respondents to the survey, 30 per cent have been practising in country areas for more than 21 years, and 36 per cent don't intend to be practising within the next five years. Succession planning was listed by 71 per cent of respondents as their biggest concern, while 58 per cent also raised concerns about attracting additional lawyers and 51 per cent cited further concerns around attracting lawyers to replace departures.

The Law Council says that the results indicate that many regional and rural legal practices will close in the next five years because of a lack of appropriate successors. "Not only do these practitioners provide essential legal services, they undertake a significant amount of legal aid work," says Alex Ward, the co-chairman of the Law Council of Australia Working Group which undertook the study. "Lawyers are integral to communities, providing significant pro bono assistance and undertaking immeasurable voluntary work."

Staffing up in a downturn

A sole practitioner on the central coast of NSW, Steve Cutler from Cutlers law firm, says that while business has been good over the last couple of years, finding suitable staff is still a big issue. "It's difficult to get people out of the city and into an area like this ... And areas like this, as far as lawyers are concerned, are dying," he says. "I look around to my colleagues [throughout the area] and they are all about my age or within 10 years, and then we've got this 20-year gap of no lawyers!"

Far from dying though, many regional areas across Australia are actually thriving. Cutler says that the firm in the last 12 months has been particularly busy - especially with the assistance of the First Home Owner Grant, which has encouraged first-time home owners into the Central Coast to purchase property.

Even hiring PAs has proven difficult for Cutler - despite the Central Coast being renowned for its high unemployment rate, Cutler says advertising for a skilled position in the region usually brings few valuable leads. He also has the added challenge of looking for a lawyer to eventually take over his practice, given that he is approaching retirement age. "I'll be looking for somebody to come in with a view to assist me and eventually buy the practice," he says. "But I don't ever really see myself leaving the practice."

For some regional law firms, however, the economic downturn and its impact on city law firms is providing some great opportunities for staff. "Now is a fantastic time to recruit," says Don Cameron, director of Adams Leyland Lawyers with offices in Albury, Wodonga, Dubbo and Gilgandra. "We do have problems with staffing, and have had them for the last 20 years that I have been practising in the bush."

Cameron says that his recent experience with a recruiter who delivered CVs of highly qualified lawyers interested in making a move from the city to his firm provided some indication on how the financial crisis is currently inspiring lawyers to think outside of their original career expectations.

Mark McGrath, a partner at McKays Solicitors, which has about 90 staff in MacKay, North Queensland, says the perception that regional areas are struggling with the downturn is not necessarily true. In fact, he says that in his region some of the area's largest employers - such as coal-loading facilities and mines - have had record months.

But when it comes to staffing and succession, McGrath says the firm is not finding it as big a problem as many other firms across the North Queensland area. He says that his firm has managed to secure a young staff base - with most under the age of 50.

How does McKay manage to attract, and retain, so many young lawyers? McGrath says it comes down to the size - and the success - of the law firm. "If you create a good reputation and a good environment around you and other people want to join in, it becomes a positive cycle of growth," he says.

"Also, we've been selective on who we bring into the firm and who has got the right cultural attributes to fit in and be a team player - that makes people appreciate being here."

Opportunity in the bush

Regional law firms contacted by Lawyers Weekly for this report said their firms had a lot to offer lawyers willing to move from large cities - particularly those lawyers searching for a better sense of community, more general legal skills and tighter client relationships than what might be expected of them at city law firms.

Cameron says long relationships with clients are essential to his law firm, and can assist in achieving career satisfaction - particularly at a time when regional areas are experiencing the fallout from the economic downturn. "The major focus [at present] is to try and ride with our clients and look after them when things are tough, with the view that it's better to have a client come back over the years than have them burned out by you," he says.

Cutler agrees, noting that community involvement is the key to success in a regional area, and it makes a whole new ball game of client relationships when compared to city law firms. "Most country and suburban lawyers do get involved in their community so they know people and can have empathy for how their businesses are running," he says. "If you're working on George St, you just don't have that at all."

For the trees and the seas

The lawyer shortages facing regional and rural Australian law firms have prompted law societies to step in and assist. In Western Australia, the law society has established the Country Lawyers Program in a bid improve recruitment and retention across country WA. According to society president Dudley Stow, 23 lawyers are receiving training at Legal Aid WA, with placements taking place across areas as diverse as Carnarvon, Bunbury, Kununurra, Albany, Broome, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie and Port Hedland.

Stow sees opportunity in the challenges facing regional law firms in WA. "[It's] a fabulous opportunity for young lawyers, or those who have been let go during the current economic crisis, to make a legal 'tree change' or 'sea change' and look at the possibility of practising law outside the metropolitan area," he says.

Joe Catanzariti, president of the Law Society of NSW, says the results of the Law Council's study indicate the situation is dire and that the only way forward is for regional legal communities to address issues of isolation and family support. "Incentives should also be provided to ensure that law graduates and experienced solicitors are exposed to the benefits of practising in country NSW," he says.

Perhaps attracting lawyers out of the city and into regional, rural and remote areas is merely a matter of promoting the lifestyle. Despite challenges of attracting staff, many regional lawyers wouldn't have their lifestyle, or their chance to work in the bush, any other way. According to McGrath, a partnership discussion over what the firm would do if their syndicate won the $90 million Powerball jackpot up for grabs last month proved his belief that many lawyers are extremely satisfied in their regional law firms.

"We asked if we would still turn up on Monday morning if we won," he said. "Well we might go on a two-month holiday and watch the Tour de France or something, but we actually like being lawyers here and we'd all come back and want to still be practising as lawyers ... Maybe not five days a week though, maybe four."

Like this story? Read more:

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The regional exodus
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