My life as a lawyer in a small BC community

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It can be hard to find a lawyer in a small rural community. Many BC towns have a shortage of lawyers or are projected to have a shortage in the coming years. But smaller communities offer BC lawyers economic advantages including more affordable housing, easy access to recreational activities, and opportunities in the practice of law that may not be available in larger cities. As one Provincial Court judge says, “Life in a small town has a lot to offer.”

Regional Administrative Judge John Milne tells his own story:

“I practiced law in a small community for some 20 years and then judged in the same community for nine years. The story runs like this.

I graduated from law school in my late 20’s. Although we had strong family connections in the Lower Mainland, my wife and I decided to go on an adventure for five years. I looked for articles in Nelson, Campbell River, and similar sized communities.

We were both outdoors people and sailing was a passion of mine so getting offers from two firms in Prince Rupert (population then 17,000) was exciting. My principal had a 27 foot sailboat and when they flew me there to interview the sun was shining and he took me sailing for the afternoon even though it was a workday! It sold me - here was the lifestyle and work balance I could live with. The north was booming. Lawyers were well-paid and there was no competition for clients. We could afford a house on a single salary, and partnership was on the offering if it all worked out.

When we decided after a year that the north coast weather was not for us, I heard that a law practice was for sale in Smithers. I had worked in that area as a summer forestry student. We bought the practice as soon as I was called to the bar and moved to the small town (population 5000 but area population 30,000).

It turned out Smithers was the Victoria of the north. It was a government center with a highly educated population, a booming economy in forests and mines, lots of young families, spectacular scenery, and fabulous outdoor opportunities, including skiing, fishing, golf, kayaking, hiking, and hunting (something I’d never done).

The practice was an established one and we did everything that came through the door. At the beginning we had four associate lawyers and, in the later years, just the two partners. It was a very busy and varied practice – at times, too busy. When we purchased it the selling lawyers had a night shift in their conveyancing practice; our early associates were doing serious jury trials within two years of call; million dollar logging contractors looked to us for business advice; and that was on top of government and other contract work.

Clients became friends. Rotary activity involved us in the community as did our children’s activity once three children came along. We were able to buy a house and then, eventually, one on the lake with everything we wanted, including a huge workshop where I built a small sailing skiff. In the meantime, I was able to devote volunteer time to bar association activities and various organizations that took me to Vancouver regularly. Winter and summer sports, which everyone did without thinking, kept me fit.

Some of the things that contributed to our great experience in a small community were participating in outdoor and community activities, having access to an airport at all times of the year, and having a hospital, a staffed courthouse, and lots of government employees in the community.

Our five year adventure turned into three decades - small town life worked well for us for 30 years! Eventually, with adult children who left town for university and jobs, aging parents, and prospects of grandchildren, we returned to the Lower Mainland.

We do not have a single regret for the years we spent in a small community and the close friends we made there. The lifestyle was great and professionally the work was varied and challenging.”

The Law Foundation and the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association have been working to address the shortage of lawyers in smaller communities by funding a program that places law students in rural law firms for summer work experience and facilitates the placement of articled students in “high needs communities”.

To date, their Rural Education and Access to Lawyers (REAL) initiative has supported more than 100 law students spending a summer working in a rural law firm. About half of them have been offered the opportunity to return to article with the firm.

For more details or to learn how you can help support the initiative, lawyers and law students can contact the Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch.