In 2012, 14% of lawyers in B.C. practiced outside of Vancouver, Victoria and Westminster.
In 2014, 11% of lawyers in Alberta practiced outside of Calgary and Edmonton.
In 2018, 22% of lawyers in Saskatchewan practiced outside of Saskatoon and Regina.
Note: Most lawyers practicing outside of these large cities are located in smaller urban centres.
There is an access to justice crisis developing in rural, remote and regional communities across the country. Lawyers in small towns are growing older and nearing retirement. Newer lawyers are not stepping in to fill their shoes, preferring to stay in larger cities. Rural firms are either shutting down or being bought by larger firms in regional centres, which then send a lawyer to the town for a few days every month. Combine this with the closing of many small courthouses and cutbacks to legal aid funding and you have an impending access to justice crisis.
Work needs to be done to highlight the benefits of rural living … and rural practice …The increasing shortage of lawyers in rural regions has a far-reaching effect on communities in these areas. Lawyers often fill leadership roles within their communities, serving on boards and political councils. They are members of the Chamber of Commerce and play a key role in businesses at every stage of their development. Community-minded, lawyers volunteer in a variety of organizations, from community leagues to sports teams to local non-profits and many more. In short, lawyers occupy many key roles within a community, and their absence is felt keenly far beyond the walls of any courtroom.
Nationally, only 8.7% of new lawyers (having less than five years of experience) practice in a rural setting. A survey of the Law Society of British Columbia found that most students would leave the province before considering practicing in a rural area. Such a sentiment is not unique to students in B.C. The overwhelming preference of most law students to work in an urban centre is found across the country. Why is this?
- Most law students are from urban centres and have little experience with rural life. Their friends and family live in the city and, unsurprisingly, many students wish to remain close to them. The same is true for their partners, who may find it difficult to find work in a smaller centre.
- Big city firms dominate recruitment in law school. Students are hit early on with the message that the goal is to work in one of these firms with their money and prestige, and that ending up anywhere else somehow makes you a lesser lawyer. Even students who had no desire to work in such a firm upon entering law school, often quickly succumb to the pressure.
- There is a perception that small town equals small income. With many students carrying high student loan debt, there is a need to find a lucrative position quickly. Many students do not realize that there is money to be made in rural areas where the need for legal assistance is great.
- Most rural practitioners are generalists. The need to be well-versed in a variety of legal areas can seem daunting to a new graduate. In addition, as the bulk of legal work in rural areas is solicitor’s work, those who wish to litigate prefer to remain in the cities.The increasing shortage of lawyers in rural regions has a far-reaching effect on communities in these areas.
- Rural firms are far less active in recruiting students than their urban counterparts. This is in large part due to finances. It costs time and money to travel to colleges to talk with students. It is also more difficult for small firms and sole practitioners to absorb the cost of training articling students, especially if the students then return to the city to practice. Thus, students often must seek out opportunities in small communities.
- Law school does not teach the business skills necessary to operate a law firm. This makes it very difficult to set up as a sole practitioner in a rural area or step into the role of a partner only a few years out of college.
Seeking a Solution
Law schools, legal organizations and rural development groups across Western Canada have been exploring ways of promoting the practice of law in rural, regional and remote regions. The solutions put forth are many; the success rates varied. Moving from British Columbia to Manitoba, here is a list of some efforts that have been made:
- Rural Education and Access to Lawyer (REAL) Initiative: In 2009, the Canadian Bar Association – British Columbia established a summer student placement program to expose students to the practice of law in small urban and rural areas. REAL offers assistance with funding and helps to match second-year law students with lawyers in high needs communities. The hope is that students will then return to these communities to article and practice. One hundred and thirty students have been placed, with 61 percent continuing to work in rural communities.
- Career Advisor – Rural Regions: In 2017, the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law hired a second career advisor. Part of this advisor’s mandate is to build relationships with rural firms and promote the practice of law in rural areas. The university’s Career and Professional Development Office hosts luncheons and invites regional and rural practitioners to speak with students.
- Rural Energy and Agriculture Students’ Law Society (REAL): Established in 2011, the purpose of REAL at the University of Calgary is to promote the practice of law (particularly agriculture and energy law) in small communities and to provide some guidance on managing a generalist practice. To this end, REAL organizes and supports several events. With the university’s Career and Professional Development Office, REAL hosts an annual Small and Regional Firm Day which attracts over 100 practitioners from small firms across the province. (The University of Alberta hosts a similar event – the Small Firm Career Day.) REAL also organizes a Rural Judge Shadowing Day and a tour of firms in a small urban centre.
Opportunities Outside of Edmonton and Calgary Seminar: The Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta has offered a seminar on job opportunities for students in rural, regional and remote regions. Lawyers from these areas are invited to give a guest lecture. As a result, interest in practicing in places outside of Edmonton and Calgary has been increasing.
- Rural Access to Justice (RAJ) (later Alberta Rural Law Opportunities (ARLO)) Initiative: From 2014 to 2018, the Alberta Rural Development Network, with funding from Justice Canada, helped first and second-year students find summer placements in francophone communities in rural areas. The program was similar to REAL BC and was successful in placing several students in rural communities.
- Regional Barbecues: The Canadian Bar Association – Alberta Branch’s Small Communities Initiative sponsors barbecues in regional centres. Lawyers, law students (current and incoming) and the judiciary are invited to attend. The idea is to expose students to the benefits of practicing in a regional market before they are bombarded by big firm recruiters at law school.
- Regional and Rural Mentorship Program: The Canadian Bar Association Alberta Branch has expanded their mentorship program to include the option of mentoring with a regional or rural practitioner.
- Small Urban and Rural Firm Committee (SURC): SURC is a student-driven initiative at the University of Saskatchewan. Every year as part of Access to Justice Week, a student committee organizes a daylong tour of firms and communities in a rural area of the province. The tour gives interested students the opportunity to discover some of the benefits and challenges of working in a small urban or rural area. The Canadian Bar Association Saskatchewan Branch funds this program.
- Forgiving Student Debt: In 2010, the Law Society of Manitoba introduced a program to offer a limited number of law students the opportunity to have their student debt forgiven (up to $25,000 per year of tuition and living expenses) if they work in an underrepresented community. One-third of their debt is forgiven each year with the hope that after three years in a community, the new lawyer will have put down roots and decide to stay.
Another possible solution put forward by Dustin Link, Bonita Mwunvaneza and Tanner Schroh – former law students at the University of Saskatchewan – is to establish a legal incubator that would provide legal and business training to articling students and new lawyers while at the same time providing affordable and accessible legal services to people in rural and remote communities. The Rural Practice Working Group of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society has suggested the possibility of establishing a system that would enable rural firms to share articling students, making it easier to absorb the costs of hiring a student.
The need for lawyers in rural, regional and remote areas of the country is steadily increasing as the baby boomers reach retirement age. Law schools, legal organizations and rural practitioners need to do more to present working in a smaller community in a more positive light. Work needs to be done to highlight the benefits of rural living (shorter commute times, better work-life balance, lower cost of living, friendly neighbours, being an integral part of the community) and rural practice (wider variety of legal issues, quicker advancement, lower overhead costs, easier to network). These are advantages of which students are often not aware.