Small firms, small towns

When British Columbians need a lawyer — for real estate transactions, court representation, advice for their small businesses — most often they rely on small firm lawyers. This is especially true outside of Metro Vancouver and Victoria.

Working in a sole or small firm practice in rural BC carries great benefits and a unique set of challenges. This feature story showcases the work of a small firm in small town BC and the inherent opportunities and challenges.

On the Great Interior Plains of northeastern British Columbia, just north of the Peace River, lies the city of Fort St. John. Originally established as a fur trading post in 1794, it is the oldest standing non-Aboriginal settlement in BC.

Thanks in part to the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942 and the discovery of high grade oil in 1951, Fort St. John is now the largest city in the BC Peace region. At last count, the community had grown to 18,000 residents, with an additional 12,000 in the surrounding area.

More than 1,200 km from Vancouver and 1,000 km beyond Hope, Fort St. John provides countless opportunities for outdoor adventure, including horseback riding, fresh water fishing, golfing, hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and skiing. There are also cultural events, such as live theatre, a museum and art gallery.

But it was not any of these things that drew Augustine Earmme in 1992 to practice law there. "Actually, it was my brother that convinced me to go," said Earmme, speaking from the law offices of Earmme and Associates.

"I was a student at UVic law, and when I was at the job board one day looking for an articling position, I noticed that there was an opening at a firm in Fort. St. John. My brother had recently gone up there for work, and I could have gotten a job in Vancouver, but I thought, 'Well, I haven't seen my brother in a while,' so I decided to try it out for a year."

While his brother left Fort St. John 18 months later, Earmme was there to stay.

Small firms...

Earmme is one of thousands of BC lawyers who work in a small firm, which is defined by the Benchers as a firm with four or fewer lawyers.

Indeed, small firm lawyers are the backbone of the legal profession in BC. They represent a whopping 92 per cent of all firms in the province. Of the 3,936 firms operating in BC in 2008, 2,916 are sole practitioners and 723 have two to five lawyers on staff.

...in small towns

If you meet a lawyer from outside the Lower Mainland, chances are he or she works in sole or small firm practice. Practitioners outside of major centres make up about 20 per cent of the total number of lawyers in BC.

Many small town lawyers are raised in the area, returning to their hometowns after obtaining law degrees. Laura Tesar grew up in Fort St. John and came back after completing her LL.B at the University of Alberta. She articled with Earmme and Associates in 2006 and has been there ever since.

"After my first two years of university, I had every intention of leaving and never coming back, but it was family that brought me back. And I enjoy it now. I'm happier here than I was in the big city," said Tesar.

But there are also Lower Mainland transplants who make the transition. "I'd say it's about a 50/50 split between displaced lawyers like me who are not from here and lawyers who were raised in the area," said Earmme.

"Lawyers in larger centres who haven't actually dealt with or experienced working with small town firms may have the misconception that we're hicks or that we don't know what we're talking about, which is not the case," said Earmme. "When I get a file where I'm dealing with an outside law firm, they're often pleasantly surprised."

The opportunities...

Opportunities exist in every region of the province for lawyers seeking a broad range of legal experience, along with the lifestyle smaller communities have to offer.

Indeed, many practitioners — from cities large and small — have made a conscious choice to practise in small towns rather than in large firms.

"People seem to think that with small towns, you're going to the edge of civilization and there's no coming back," said Tesar. "But I don't really feel there's any great disadvantage. In fact I think it's advantageous for me to be here. I have a much greater balance in my life, which makes me happier. And I do enjoy my work more because of it."

When asked what was most rewarding about her current practice, Tesar spoke of working directly with clients. "I interacted with clients really early on, which is something my friends who went to larger firms didn't seem to do much of. Also, you are in charge of your own files so you're not working under somebody so much."

Earmme said that for him, the biggest advantage to his practice,"is that you get to know your clients. Some of them have become friends. They know that you're not just a lawyer. You actually live here and participate with them in the community. I run into clients at lunch, when I'm at a social event, or at the local play. Usually the first thing out of their mouth is, 'How's my file going?'"

In Earmme's opinion, small town practice affords the opportunity for a friendlier, less confrontational style of practicing law. "A lot of lawyers that I deal with are usually pleasantly surprised that big firm aggressiveness is not here. Certainly for the solicitors, it's more about a good working relationship."

"The solicitors in small towns, we're friends," said Earmme. "We socialize together. So when we're sitting across a file from each other, we don't want to fight, we want to make sure that our clients get the best deal they can."

The small town, small firm route also affords important lifestyle opportunities. "When I was first starting out, all of my friends were talking about putting in 80 hours a week, not getting any sleep, having no social life — just bill, bill, bill. Up here that's not the case."

The members of Earmme and Associates take advantage of this extra time to get involved in activities outside of work. Earmme belongs to the Rotary Club and is involved in a local theatre troupe. Tesar finds time to do yoga, be involved with her church and is even renovating a house.

...and the challenges

While the advantages small town practice affords are great, there are also a number of challenges.

The absence of younger lawyers is more prevalent outside of urban areas. And as the profession ages, this raises concerns about whether the sole and small firm Bar is renewing itself, particularly in less populated parts of the province.

"There aren't a lot of young lawyers around, so it is hard to have that identification with what you're going through," said Tesar. "But there are a couple here. I was the first articling student in Fort St. John in about seven years. But shortly thereafter, another student came up and then another young lawyer moved up a few months later. So there's definitely been a bit of an influx. It's important to get younger lawyers up here, too."

David Levis, a local lawyer and retired provincial court judge recalled how he jumped at the opportunity to take in an articling student when he was contacted by the Law Society in 1970 and asked if he could place a student there.

"I didn't know anything about the student — not even a name — but when the call came, I immediately said yes. It wasn't common to get articled students up here at that time," said Levis. It turned out that student was Beverley McLachlin who is now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

A second major challenge, according to Earmme, is practice management — particularly in more isolated communities with fewer available resources. But even in a small town, local support can be a valuable asset.

"If I have a management question, I often phone a fellow solicitor who manages or owns a firm and ask, 'What would you do in this situation?' There's a kind of collegiality to fall back on."

Lawyers are also welcome to contact a Law Society practice advisor, such as Barbara Buchanan. "We get calls for assistance from lawyers all over the province," said Buchanan. "Whether you're a senior or junior lawyer, sole practitioner or lawyer in a large firm, we're here to help."

Today, the Law Society is taking action to help create more opportunities for young lawyers seeking positions in rural areas. The Articling Registry was launched earlier this year by the Law Society and the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association. It was an initiative that came out of the Law Society's Small Firm Task Force with the thought being that it would enhance articling opportunities through BC — including smaller centres.

Meeting the needs of small firms

In 2005, the task force consulted sole and small firm practitioners to make recommendations to help strengthen and support their practices. The task force consulted widely throughout the province and received many suggestions.

It identified a number of issues facing small firms, including practice structure, client base and practice locations, rising overhead costs, demands and costs of technology, access to legal research, shortages of lawyers and articling students and isolation. And after extensive consultation, it made several recommendations for programs and services the society might provide to help sole and small firms.

The Benchers adopted six of those recommendations, and the Law Society acted on them. The Small Firm Practice Course was launched in January 2007. The course is compulsory for new lawyers practising in certain defined small firm settings and is available to all other BC lawyers on a voluntary basis. More than 400 lawyers have taken the course to date.

There has been a concerted effort to move toward online course delivery, helping lawyers working in remote areas maximize opportunities to further their professional development.

The Law Society continues to develop new programs that will benefit lawyers in small firms. In addition, there is a new online locum registry to help lawyers seeking a temporary leave from practice find an interim replacement.

Consider small town practice

There is no shortage of professional opportunities for those interested in small town practice.

According to Earmme, "Even though it's a small community, you get a variety of legal issues, such as what you would see in major centres." Lawyers also have the opportunity to choose to focus their practices. "You get people here who specialize in areas like family law and criminal law. For me and a couple of other lawyers in town, we just do solicitor's work and mainly it's corporate, commercial and real estate."

As for younger lawyers contemplating their future practice, Tesar recommends giving full consideration to a small town firm. "If you're willing, if you have the mindset that it's okay to be in a small town, I would definitely recommend it."