Rural lawyers heading for cities

  • March 09, 2012

By Donalee Moulton


Where have all the lawyers gone? To the city, it seems.

Law societies across the country are facing a similar predicament: new lawyers just aren’t hanging out their shingles in rural areas like they used to. As lawyers currently in practice in smaller communities ramp up for retirement, the question looms: Who will replace them?

There is no easy answer, but law societies are scrambling to find ways to attract and retain legal talent in towns throughout Canada.

At present, the decline in lawyers is either small or manageable for many provinces — but the numbers speak ominously to what lies ahead. In Manitoba, for example, the number of lawyers in rural practice is not noticeably declining. “But [the lawyers] are aging significantly, which means they will disappear over time. We have some very disturbing demographic data,” said Allan Fineblit, chief executive officer of the Law Society of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

The same is happening in Ontario, as was pointed out in a recent report, The Geography of Civil Legal Services in Ontario: “The division of Haliburton has only 5 lawyers in private practice and Manitoulin has 8 lawyers — both less than 0.5 per cent of the provincial total. Across Ontario, there are 31 census divisions that have fewer than 100 lawyers in private practice.”

In Nova Scotia, it’s estimated that one county alone will lose half of its lawyers over the next 20 years if nothing is done. “Nova Scotia is the oldest province in the country, and rural areas are even older,” said Tim Daley, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society and a partner with Goodman MacDonald Patterson Daley in New Glasgow. “Approximately half of the practising bar will be retired over the next few years.”

In Alberta, “our data indicates that there is definitely a decline in the number of practitioners outside our two major centres,” said Doug Mah, outgoing president of the Law Society of Alberta.

In 2008, 35 per cent of lawyers in the province were sole practitioners and 38 per cent worked in small firms, both indicators of lawyers likely to be in rural practice. By 2011, the numbers had declined to 21 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively.

“That is a significant drop,” Mah said. “The main factor has to do with the relative age of the practitioners. Young lawyers don’t seem to want to stay in rural areas or go to rural areas. We’re not sure why that is. At some point, there won’t be enough practitioners to service the people in these small communities.”

The predicted movement of lawyers away from rural areas poses significant problems for the profession and the public.

“Small communities depend on small firms and sole practitioners for the provision of legal services,” said Susan Tonkin, communications advisor with the Law Society of Upper Canada in Toronto. “The law society’s goal is to help ensure that the public continues to have access to legal services in their communities, and this requires the ongoing viability of sole practitioners and small firms in all areas of Ontario, including those in rural areas.”

The issue extends beyond provision of services. “The society is clearly concerned about access to justice in rural Nova Scotia,” said NSBS executive director Darrel Pink in Halifax.

The shifting demographics are compelling law societies to take action.

Manitoba has a forgivable loan program for students from underserviced communities that will provide them up to $25,000 a year. “If they return to practice in their community, the loan is forgiven at a rate of 20 per cent a year, so after five years they don’t have to pay it back,” Fineblit said.

Alberta formed a task force in 2010 to address three issues, one of which was the declining number of rural lawyers.

Nova Scotia has established a Rural Practice Working Group that is currently looking at the factors affecting lawyers in smaller communities. “We’re trying to take a broader approach than simply asking: ‘How do we recruit?’ ” Pink said. For example, he said, “we want to see if creative articling arrangements can be made.”

In 2009, the B.C. Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, supported by $795,000 in funding from the provincial law foundation, embarked on a three-year program designed to attract lawyers to small and rural communities.

“We want to ensure that the next generation of lawyers has the opportunity to learn from legal mentors in small town B.C. and gain an appreciation of the values and benefits of practising law in these communities,” then-CBABC president Miriam Maisonville said in a release at the launch of the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers initiative.

Known as REAL, it has six main components, including funding for a regional legal careers officer position to promote practice opportunities in smaller communities and match students with opportunities in local bars; funding for student visits to local law firms in smaller communities; and fully funded summer student positions.

Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of asking young lawyers if they’re interested in rural practice. A conference on the issue held last year in Nova Scotia included students on the invitation list. This was a first, Daley said.

In Ontario, the emphasis is also on lending a hand to sole practitioners and small firms. For example, a two-day conference and expo is held each year to support these lawyers and a succession planning toolkit is available online. “This free tutorial takes lawyers through the necessary steps for the transfer or sale of a legal practice upon retirement,” Tonkin said.

What is necessary  is putting the issue under the spotlight. “The most hopeful thing,” said Pink, the NSBS executive director, “is by having the discussion we have created a dialogue.”

© 2012 The Lawyers Weekly

March 09 2012

Byline: Donalee Moulton