Working in the country is seen by some as an inferior option or last resort, but many regional lawyers are happier, more successful and more diverse than their city cousins, writes Claire Chaffey.
Country lawyers are a resilient bunch. They have to be. On a daily basis they face challenges that most practitioners living in Australia's major cities would never encounter. But faced with these challenges, they quickly build nous, initiative and resourcefulness - traits which develop as a result of operating in an environment which demands quick thinking and lots of imagination.
In the country, it's sink or swim.
So why does a general attitude prevail in our cities that lawyers in regional areas are somehow sub-standard, and that taking up a position in a rural area is less prestigious than jostling your way into a large city firm?
Regional centres suffer a chronic shortage of young lawyers, and the longevity of access to justice in the country is under threat as succession plans grind to a halt.
The shortage lingers despite bountiful opportunities: immediate exposure to highly diversified legal work, front-line advocacy and meaningful client interaction.
Still, opportunities for partnership whilst still in your twenties - and the chance to earn serious dollars when balanced with living costs - is not enough to persuade young lawyers to give the country a go.
While there is a broad spectrum of issues which compound the difficulties currently experienced by regional firms, misconceptions about country life play a significant role.
Resultantly, lawyers are missing golden opportunities and regional firms continue to struggle - unnecessarily - against crippling stagnancy.
The superiority complex
There is some speculation within the legal industry that city firms - the large ones in particular - are prone to peering down their noses at their country counterparts.
While this is not driven by malice - and by no means exclusive to the legal profession - it is certainly prevalent.
Many firms, for example, make no secret of the fact they prefer an urban university degree to a regional one, and one city firm even goes so far as to advertise in major regional centres' yellow pages, thumbing its nose at local practitioners and touting to potential clients: "Don't be disadvantaged because you're in the country - we'll come to you!"
As a result of such perceptions, many young lawyers who do commence their careers in the country do so not because of eagerness, but because of a perceived lack of options.
"I think the situation has been that they can't cut the mustard in the CBD so they end up going out to the bush," says Sharyl Walsh, director of Allied Recruitment Solutions in Melbourne.
"But I would say it is actually [a good thing]. The training they gain in a regional practice is far over and above the training they get in most law firms in the CBD."
Senior Business Manager at Wotton Kearney Insurance Lawyers, Andrew Price, tends to agree:
"After two years, [city lawyers] may have done not much more than discovery, whereas in the country ... they might be running hearings in the local court after one year," he says.
A country practice
Such opportunities were what drew born-and-bred Melbournite Anthony Robinson to the town of Warrnambool in Victoria's south soon after completing his articles.
"I always thought I'd like to try living in the country and thought it might give me a good grounding to go to the bar. I wanted a job where I would be doing court work," he says.
With the intention of staying a couple of years, Robinson soon embraced the quality of life in Warrnambool, the camaraderie of the town's legal professionals and the wide variety of hands-on work - a far cry from his insurance job in Melbourne's high-rise jungle.
Twenty-seven years later, he is still there and entering his thirteenth year of partnership at firm Dwyer Robinson.
"I very quickly loved the lifestyle. We work really hard here, but the lifestyle and country setting just make it so much easier. I just love waking up in the country," he says.
Regional might a recruiter's delight
Not only do country lawyers tend to enjoy what they do, they do it very well. And recruiters, for one, are quick to sing their praises.
Walsh goes so far as to say that regional lawyers are amongst her best candidates, being not only extremely talented, but personable too.
"I just love dealing with [regional lawyers] because they are so switched on, but so relaxed and just delightful," she says.
"They have made the decision to go to the country. Most of [them] would have no problem being in the top-tier law firms, but it's a lifestyle choice."
Paul Burgess, director of Paluch Burgess Legal Recruitment, sees many benefits for those starting out in the country: early exposure to clients, the chance to commence practice by working on a wide range of issues and, for the right candidate, opportunities for partnership whilst still very young.
And it seems that employers too are starting to realise the potential of lawyers with regional experience.
"We recruit for some firms in particular who recognize that country practitioners receive good coalface experience and in certain areas - such as property, general commercial law and personal injuries - they are regarded as having strong experience," says Burgess.
Walsh has observed similar trends: "I think some [employers] are smart enough now to realise that if they are getting a third or fourth or fifth year lawyer coming back to the city, that person will have a lot more experience in dealing directly with clients, dealing with a wider variety of work ... and they don't hide behind legalese."
The regional reality
Despite all this, the reality is that most still balk at the idea of practicing regionally, and if they do, they rarely stay.
Mark Ireland, principal solicitor at Mark Ireland Lawyers in Bathurst, knows this all too well.
"I can guarantee that if [a city lawyer] gets a start here, after two years they will hot-foot it somewhere else," he says.
"They just want to get a start. They are never committed to staying out here, so it makes it really difficult."
Pouyan Afshar, president of the New South Wales Young Lawyers' Society, believes that many more of his constituents would be tempted to move to regional areas if they knew what to expect and were aware of the opportunities available - both in terms of career and lifestyle.
"It is ignorance to some extent, and that comes from a lack of information about what a true country firm is like, what sort of work they do and what sort of practice they have," he says.
Walsh also proffers that misconceptions about the culture of country towns lead to a reluctance to consider relocating.
"Everyone thinks they are going to miss out on the café society in Melbourne or Sydney but, for example, in Griffith I actually had the second best cup of coffee in my entire life - the best being in Syracuse in Sicily," she says.
"It is very, very cultured. There is a fabulous cross-pollination of cultures [and it] offers so much for people to do."
Education for change
The reasons behind regional firms' woes are complex, but it is possible that opportunities which currently lay dormant could be awakened through information and education.
"There really needs to be a push to encourage people to work in regional areas. There needs to be a concerted focus on it, in the same way there is now a concerted focus on depression," says Afshar.
"If these misconceptions about working in regional areas - and the problems that actually exist in regional areas - were abated somehow, we would find that a lot more people would be willing to work in regional areas ... and that would be a really good thing."
Walsh agrees, and believes law societies and practitioners need to ramp up initiatives to encourage and enlighten young lawyers about the possibilities available to them in regional areas.
This, she says, along with a little imagination in relation to incentives - such as the provision of petrol, flexible work arrangements and assistance with housing - would go a long way to attracting fresh blood.
"It is really up to [regional] law firms to be more proactive in looking to how they can retain people, and be more competitive with city firms," she says.
And you never know: if young lawyers were more aware of what they could achieve and the lifestyle they could lead simply by challenging themselves and popular notions, there may just be a few more happy and successful Anthony Robinsons hamming it up in Warrnambool.
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