Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lawyer Shortage in Small Town Ontario

Small town law firms across the Province are struggling to attract lawyers. There are a lot of theories on ‘why’: I recall in law school dealing with a culture of “Bay Street or Bust”, the idea that the sole objective of law school was to land a job in one of the big firms on Bay Street, and that failure to do so meant that you were without options and would suffocate under your mountain of student debt.

True that the Bay Street jobs pay better. Not true that they’re the only viable options. And small town practice, while having a number of differences from big city practice (in the city, you don’t deal with so many agricultural issues, wind farms, oil and gas leases), is no less interesting. Probably more interesting, most of the time.

A recent Lawyers’ Weekly article outlined some of the myths drawing law students to Toronto instead of small town Ontario. This seems a fair assessment to me, and I won’t regurgitate the analysis here, but I will say that it’s missing a major factor: Marketing. The big Bay Street firms have a recruitment cycle, starting with picking up summer students after first or second year of law school, and culminating in recruiting them as associate lawyers. This is how they do most of their recruitment – right out of law schools. They dedicate significant resources to it, because usually they are growing reasonably steadily, and it’s worth developing these students with the expectation that they will pick up all, most, or even just some of the students as lawyers later on.

If the economy turns down, no problem, just hire back fewer of the students. Lose part of your recruitment investment, but it’s a manageable loss.

Small firms, on the other hand, have a harder time planning recruitment. Loss of one lawyer is a big portion of your staff; you don’t have the time to recruit a second year law student and wait two more years before he gets called to the Bar. On the other hand, you don’t have the resources to swallow a loss if you pick up more lawyers than you can bear, so investing in a consistent recruitment cycle doesn’t make sense.

So law students get the mistaken impression that there aren’t really jobs in small towns. And don’t look in small towns. So the small town firms that are hiring end up having a hard time attracting candidates.

The consequence is significant to the community. Norfolk isn’t all that small a community, by comparison to a lot of the towns up north, and isn’t nearly as remote. Worst case scenario, people here can go to firms in Brantford or Hamilton if local resources aren’t sufficient. Still, even here, you get a lot of people having a hard time finding a lawyer who can help, between conflicts of interest and workload.

Yes, I'm aware of the perceived irony of a "lawyer shortage"...but if people can’t access legal services, then the justice system becomes pretty empty.

As well, there are a number of retiring lawyers in small communities, including Norfolk. So even maintaining a steady number of lawyers is challenging, but in the long term some growth will be necessary, and it’s hard to get these numbers.

Norfolk firms actually haven’t been doing badly for bringing in new lawyers lately. My firm obviously brought me in at the start of 2010. I’m a newcomer to the County. In June, another local firm brought home a brand new lawyer who grew up here. My understanding is that there are at least two articling students in town right now as well. But we’re no exception in terms of having a retiring demographic. I don’t know the ages of all the lawyers in the area, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a significant proportion of them are 60+, or close to it. (Mind you, lawyers occasionally work into their 70s, but we’ve got some of those, too.)

Then again, we haven’t been doing great, either. I can only point to five private bar lawyers in Norfolk, myself included, who have been practicing law for fewer than ten years. Being a newcomer, I can’t speak much to history, but I’m wise enough to the numbers to think that attrition may be a challenge: With two of us having started here in 2010, two current articling students, and only three others within the last ten years, the numbers suggest that keeping new lawyers may be the challenge. (Indeed, I’m aware of at least one lawyer who recently left for Brantford, and one of last year’s articling students who departed to further her education.)

Here’s what makes this difficulty puzzling: I recently read an article indicating that a survey of this year’s new calls to the bar indicated that nearly half of them had not secured post-call employment. I personally know new lawyers who have been unable to secure any sort of steady employment, at least in part because they are overly limiting their own options in terms of practice area and area of law.

So there is a pool of young talent out there; small towns and small town firms just need to develop strategies to attract and retain these lawyers.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

No comments:

Post a Comment