Slater & Gordon's recently announced merger with Long Howland Lawyers and Associates in Gunnedah, NSW, is part of a concerted effort by the firm to make inroads into rural Australia.
This is just the latest in a series of mergers with firms in rural and regional areas - areas which the firm has indentified as a key focus for growth.
According to Slater & Gordon managing director Andrew Grech, there is strong demand from clients in rural areas for a full spectrum of personal services and business law, which has been largely driven by the ageing population.
"The ageing population has placed a huge demand for services in areas like estate planning, estate litigation and family law - all the areas that we've been trying to establish a presence in. And most people want to deal with a specialist - and they want to deal with a specialist locally," he says.
According to Grech, rural lawyers in small practices are finding it increasingly difficult to meet client demand for high-level specialist expertise, while still being able offer a full range of legal services.
"The problem confronting legal practitioners is this convergence of a growing level of complexity in the law - [one] which requires them to specialise to provide the services in the competent way they've become accustomed to over many years, and, in some cases, generations, while also trying to retain clients by providing a full service," he says.
However through mergers, Grech says, rural practices can obtain the advantage of a network of specialists in the total range of legal services their clients require.
"In many of our existing practices, our service offering is quite limited to a few specialist areas. But clients will be able to go in and see their local lawyer, get some preliminary advice, and then have the benefit of that work being done by a specialist in one of our regional hubs of our CBD offices," he says.
"Clients now aren't as concerned about where the work is done, but what they expect from a professional services firm - whether it's an individual small firm practice or a large practice - is a consistent service level."
Grech says that Slater & Gordon can also help smaller practices with attracting and retaining talent and succession planning - key areas of concern for many rural practitioners - by transferring interested staff from suburban and city offices into rural offices.
He says city-based lawyers are often interested in testing the waters of rural practice, and the firm offers them a means of doing so with less personal and career risk involved.
"They don't have to make a whole-of-career commitment," he says. "The feedback we get from a lot for young people is that they're interested in going out and having the experience of working in a region, but they're worried they might not like it. They're worried that their partner might not like it, their kids might not settle in - all those things that, as human beings, we all worry about.
"We can take the stress out of that because we've got the capacity now that if they don't like it and they want to come back into the CBD, that can be arranged for them"
- Zoe Lyon
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