What is REAL?

  • February 01, 2017
  • By Travis Dudfield

Improving access to justice
for those who need it most

Don’t worry. This is not going to be an existential debate or a series of quotes from “The Matrix.” 

This is your chance to learn about a one-of-a kind program in BC known as REAL (the Rural Education & Access to Lawyers program). 

Improving access to justice means different things to different people. For some, it means increasing and diversifying the judiciary. For others, it means advocating for legal aid funding. For many, it means ensuring that legal services are available and accessible to those who need it.

The vast majority of lawyers in BC (86%) practise in Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster. That leaves a mere 14% to cover the rest of the province. According to the Law Society of BC, the average lawyer to population ratio is one lawyer for 450 people. That number jumps to a staggering ratio of one lawyer serving 1000 people in many small, rural communities. In some “high needs” communities like Fort St. John, Tofino and Kitimat, the disparity is even higher. This results in an underserved population and overworked lawyers who struggle to provide their clients with the attention they require. Making matters worse, many lawyers who currently practise in rural areas are retiring and young lawyers are not there to replace them. 

Taking all these factors together, it became clear to visionary members of the legal community that something had to be done to tackle this issue head-on. In March 2009, the CBABC partnered with the Law Foundation of BC to establish the REAL initiative with the mission to find a solution in the next generation of lawyers. 

Law students today face many challenges: high competition for articling positions, massive student loan debt, low starting salaries, aggressive billable hour quotas, etc. These challenges make finding employment with larger firms in urban areas not only enticing, but the only apparent viable option. 

REAL offers an alternative to law students who want to hone their skills working for firms in high needs communities in BC. With financial support from the Law Society of BC and the Law Foundation of BC, REAL places 2nd year law students in firms that serve high needs communities. The CBABC works directly with law schools across the country from UVic to Dalhousie to recruit potential candidates through presentations and interactive discussions about opportunities hiding in previously unknown places. 

Over the past seven years, REAL has placed 104 students in firms in every corner of BC. Following the summer work placements, more than half of these students were offered articling positions in those firms. Practising law outside urban centres is an attractive proposition for law students who want a different kind of legal career. This is why 37 REAL alumni continue to practise in small BC towns today. 

In 2016, REAL was revised for the changing legal landscape in BC. The CBABC is working closely with the Law Society and the Law Foundation to address lingering impediments and restrictions to meet the growing demand for legal services. The CBABC is currently accepting applications for placements this summer as the work to improve access to justice in rural areas is far from over. 

If you are a law student and you are up for a REAL challenge or a law firm willing to participate, we encourage you to put your name forward. Visit cbabc.org/REAL for more information. 

Want to see REAL in action? We invite you to read past students’ REAL stories on the program’s Facebook page at facebook.com/realcbabc

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Travis Dudfield is CBABC’s Digital Content Coordinator.