The Advisory: Volume 10, Issue 1, January 2012

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Profile of Two Lawyers: Support Needed to Encourage Young Lawyers to Practice In Small Communities

By Derek Sankey

Susan Scott, Dunsford and Scott

From her home on an acreage in Rocky Mountain House, A.B., Susan Scott’s commute to work takes her about five to 10 minutes past the Clearwater River into town. Like many small towns, it’s one of those places where everybody seems to know each other.

“The lifestyle pressures are a lot less,” says Scott, who set up a practice with her husband in Rocky Mountain House in 1984 in the wake of the recession in Alberta which followed the National Energy Policy in the early 1980s. These were difficult times, but within six months the couple had established their practice with sufficient clients to sustain their business.

Almost 30 years on, Scott wouldn’t trade her choice to practice real estate, will and estates, and corporate and commercial law in this region of about 20,000 residents, scattered around a cluster of small communities. Not only does she enjoy the slower and more relaxed pace of life over the big city, but she has also formed lasting relationships with her clients, which reinforces the notion of risk prevention by “knowing your clients.”

“We certainly know our clients – not only them but usually multiple generations in their family – so we have a very good understanding of where people are at and why they’re there,” says Scott. “It’s a pretty small fishbowl in a small town, so it’s quite easy to meet people … and there are a limited number of banks and realtors that you can get to know fairly easily.”

While overhead costs are much lower than the city – they own their own building for example –the costs of living and housing are also lower. She’s concerned that the apparent lack of willingness among young lawyers to consider setting up a practice in a small town will have devastating effects when it comes to access to justice in coming years. There are five lawyers in town and all have been here, at least since the early 1990s and are now nearing retirement age.

“You could conceivably have a situation where, in 10 years, we could all be retired and that is unfortunate” Scott says.

They have hired a young associate and hope to retain her but recruitment has been a big problem. “Small towns are under-lawyered,” she says.

More needs to be done to educate lawyers about what it’s like to be your own boss living and working in a small town. While the publicly- funded medical profession has received support from the provincial government by way of incentives to entice young doctors to rural locations, there isn’t the same direct link for the legal profession, so creative ideas are needed to address the pressing issue of demographics and access to justice outside of cities. Scott admits the isolation is an impediment for luring young professionals to town.

“We are relatively geographically isolated,” she says. “We have always made a practice of going to a lot of legal seminars, but it doesn’t make up for the collegial support that you would have in a bigger centre.” Because there are often so few lawyers in these communities, confidentiality prevents Scott and other lawyers in small communities from discussing particular cases or issues that you would normally be able to talk about in larger centres. The lawyer she may be talking to is usually the lawyer on the other side of the file she’s working on.

Then there’s the problem of trying to take a vacation. If you’re a sole practitioner in a small town or a lawyer in a small rural firm, especially if your other practice partner is your spouse, it can be difficult to get away. Lawyers are always in demand, so they have to choose their vacation time very carefully and plan well in advance.

Still, the quality of life can’t be matched, says Scott. It’s time for young lawyers to go out to some of these communities and see what personal and professional daily life is like before writing it off as an option.

“People need you here,” she says.

Lawren Wowk, Grey Munday Stolfa Wowk LLP

Lawren Wowk has lived in many communities, from where he grew up in Maple Ridge, BC to attending university at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS, to St. Paul, AB all the way to attending Cardiff College of Law in Wales, UK. After graduating from the University of Wales, he found himself in Cold Lake, AB, population of about 13,000, for his articles with Grey Munday Stolfa LLP in 2007.

By August of 2008 when he was called to the bar, the firm hired him and by June of 2009 he was a partner with the newly re-named law firm Grey Munday Stolfa Wowk LLP.

“There’s no shortage of work,” says Wowk, who specializes in family law. “Cold Lake is under-lawyered. My practice has grown exponentially with a tremendous amount of experience in a relatively short period of time.”

Finding enough lawyers to work in small communities is a serious challenge for the legal profession in Alberta. Despite the noticeable benefits of working as a sole practitioner or in a small firm in a remote community, recruiting and retaining young lawyers into these areas presents some very real challenges, says Wowk.

“A lot of young lawyers want the big city environment. There is a sense of larger salaries and less hours. Admittedly, there is a lifestyle difference but there is also a career advancement difference. The reality is that smaller communities offer more than what meets the eye and it is an experience that is worth the effort,” he says.

Many of the advantages of living and working as a lawyer in a small town include fresh air and endless recreation amenities, shorter work commutes, rapid opportunity for career advancement to closer professional and personal relationships in the community, “We have a small local friendly Bar and there is this professional familiarity. Clients often find reassurance in this familiarity between Counsel. Amicable resolutions, when possible, occur over shorter periods of time than when dealing with unfamiliar Counsel.”

Wowk’s father was born and raised on a family ranch near Two Hills, A.B., so he was familiar about what life in a rural setting was all about before moving to Cold Lake. He doesn’t consider himself a “small-town” person by nature, but Wowk says his choice to join the firm led to him becoming a partner within a year carrying his own file load.

“A lot of new lawyers prefer not to be in small communities”, Wowk says with a laugh. “As new lawyers come about, there’s a different attitude toward their work and what people are prepared to live with in terms of earning their stripes.”

Despite the lower cost of living and greater purchasing power in small communities, and the exposure to a wider range of law, the ratio of lawyers to the general population remains low compared to big cities.

“Many young lawyers overlook that,” Wowk says. “They don’t recognize the multiple benefits of practising in a smaller firm in all areas of law. There is enough work to specialize in an area of law if that is your choice but there is something to be said about taking care of a family and all of their legal needs.”

Part of the solution, he says, is to educate young students early on about lawyering. Then, they need to be presented with the advantages and disadvantages of living and working in a smaller town or city.

“The idea is to educate people about the possibilities and opportunities that are out in these small communities,” says Wowk.

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