A Place to Grow. A Place to Be.

♫ Work closer to your family in Sur-ur-ey♫

A Place to Grow. A Place to Be.

Some years ago, I ran into an old friend in Victoria who had deliberately moved into the neighbourhood I had grown up in off Henderson Road close to UVic, in what is sometimes called “North Oak Bay.” She had specifically moved there so that her kids could go to nearby “Uplands Elementary School,” which was the elementary school that I went to in the 1960s. But shortly after she moved there, the Ministry of Education closed Uplands School. Although it was overflowing with neighbourhood kids in the 1960s and 1970s, the cost of real estate eventually made the neighbourhood unaffordable for young families. They could only afford other parts of Greater Victoria, like the “Western Communities” of Colwood and Langford. Without a regular infusion of young families moving into North Oak Bay, Uplands School closed. There simply weren’t enough kids anymore.

I mention this to illustrate, in my own roundabout way, what I think could happen to the Vancouver legal market in the next 20 years. In fact, I think it may be already starting. As we all know, the cost of residential real estate is ridiculously unaffordable in Vancouver (and its adjacent suburbs). I predict that more and more young and mid-career lawyers who would ordinarily climb the ladder to partnership in the big downtown Vancouver firms, may actually choose to abandon the downtown firms for Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and the other suburbs in “The Valley.” Or indeed, they may leave Metro Vancouver entirely and move to the Island or the Okanagan — closer to a more inexpensive place to live, and arguably, a less hectic lifestyle, and to be nearer to where their kids go to school.

Anyone who works in downtown Vancouver but lives in Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge, Mission or Abbotsford knows that the tortuous commute is over an hour each way every day (but only on good days), and unless you’re close to a Skytrain station or a West Coast Express station, it’s getting worse and worse every year.

So, who wants to be stuck in traffic for an hour or more each way, every working day (effectively spending more time in your car than with your kids), if you could practice law closer to home in or near British Columbia’s soon-to-be biggest city: Surrey. I think it’s an issue for the big Vancouver firms when talented lawyers (who would otherwise want to buy into the partnership) decide they’d rather put that money toward a house in the burbs without the commute, and join a firm (or start a firm) closer to home and the kids.

I know that some Vancouver firms opened satellite offices in Surrey in the early 2000s, and I’m pretty sure that experiment didn’t succeed. Maybe it was a clash of corporate cultures. Maybe it was too early. Maybe the Surrey firms were making more money per partner than the Vancouver firms. Or maybe clients were terrified that their legal fees would rise once their Surrey lawyers had been assimilated by the Borg Collective and started charging Vancouver rates. There’s obviously a discrepancy between the hourly rates and billing practices in Vancouver and the hourly rates and billing practices in Surrey, Langley and “The Valley.”

So why would the big firms move to Surrey if the clients aren’t there or won’t use them because of a perceived high-price point? Why would they go there if the last “experiment” failed? Well, in my universe, the big firms wouldn’t be going to Surrey for the clients. They’d be going there for the lawyers. They’d be going there for their support staff. It’s not client retention that’s the issue. It’s lawyer and staff retention.

You see, if your partner-track associates, junior partners, and your excellent support staff are no longer prepared to live in their cars for the privilege of working in Vancouver anymore, you might as well establish a beachhead in Surrey, Langley or other BC cities, so that you don’t lose them.

Surrey is expected to become BC’s largest city in less than 10 years. A thousand new residents move to Surrey every month. Rents are cheaper. Homes are bigger, but average house prices are far lower than Vancouver, West Vancouver or even New West. Surrey has the largest school district in British Columbia and is becoming a health care hub. And although Walley isn’t for everyone, South Surrey, Crescent Beach and White Rock are beautiful neighbourhoods. Faskins and RBS now have offices in Surrey. Lawsons now has an office in Kelowna.

So let’s see if I’m right. Let’s see if the Vancouver firms establish “beachheads in the burbs” and other smaller BC cities to protect their most important investment — their lawyers and staff.

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