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What’s it like working in small-town firms?


Glaucon

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Glaucon
  • Law Student

Would anyone be willing to share their experience doing legal work in a small town / rural setting?

I’m a an accepted UBC 0L so I know my interests will change a lot once I learn law + get some practical experience etc etc. But rn I’m super interested in rural firms // small town practice.

I’d love to hear from people who have done a small town 2L internship, who have articled in rural firms, or who have other experience practicing law in a small town context.

What does the work feel like? What’s is your social life like being one of few lawyers in a small town? What are some lessons you learned? Do you ever end up working for individuals or organizations from local native reserves, or do those communities have their own legal service sector? Is compensation predictable, or variable between firms, years, etc? Overall pros and cons of rural practice?

 

Note: I asked a more specific Q in the UBC sub about BC REAL, but the content is mostly the same. If mods wants to consolidate these topics, I’d prefer it goes general to cast a wider net.

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Phaedrus
  • Lawyer

I articled in a city and relocated to a small/rural community for practice. I practice criminal family and miscellaneous "social justice" areas.

My practice is "high volume" by rural standards and I'm in the office ~50-60 hours a week (for weeks without trials/trial prep). Our local bar is small, and my colleagues of similar age/call work similar hours. I'm sure there are sleepier rural practices, but there's more work around here than anyone really knows what to do with. That said, I enjoy a decent work-life balance and work limited weekends (as does most everyone here).

I didn't know a soul when I moved here, but it didn't take long to make friends and go out. You have to live with the fact that there's one or two bars to go to, and the same couple restaurants to order from (or drive an hour to a better population centre). You'll run into your clients all the time and you'll hear a lot from "the grapevine". Some people find that suffocating, whereas I love the familiarity. I can see introverts struggling to adjust in a small town for this reason. Volunteering always helps and it tends to daisychain to other opportunities/groups. Everyone wants a lawyer on their board/committee, especially one that cares about community. 

Compensation varies, here clerks make $40-45k and first year associates make $45-50k. That can be tough when you're carrying student debt, but the cost of living is a lot better than in a city. Base salaries are mostly comparable, so it boils down to the firm's bonus structure or fee-split arrangement. 

Working with opposing counsel is interesting. I work with the same 4-5 lawyers on 95% of my files, which can be great or a massive pain the ass. I'm quite fortunate that opposing counsel here are reasonable people and are issue-focused, so a lot of work can get done in short order because we focus on what matters (and helping the clients move on). We encounter few mouth piece lawyers that advance unreasonable positions, and the local bar tend to roll their eyes when one comes into town. That said, my colleagues in the town over have the opposite problem. Everyone's deadlocked and willing to die on every hill. 

A major attraction to small town practice is the opportunity to buy into or basically inherit a retiring lawyer's practice. Young people aren't moving into small towns, and it's hard to attract young professionals because, well, there's one bar and two restaurants. Those who want to stay can usually find a few older lawyers without a succession plan who are anxious to hand their practices off in a couple years. You will inevitably become more of a generalist in small communities: wills, estates, commercial real estate, property, civil litigation, family, etc. You learn what areas to mix and match, and what areas not to (e.g., property and criminal). 

On the dating front, being a single lawyer in a small/rural community can really suck. The dating pool is shallow and there may only be a handful of people near your age, let alone singles. Tinder/Bumble/Grindr/Hinge/etc., you better set those search areas to max. If you have a partner who's going to move with you, they might struggle to find work in their field because there isn't as much opportunity. 

I work with BIPOC clients regularly, but I probably don't provide the kind services you had in mind when you asked the question. There's a regional band with in-house counsel that most First Nations will go to for land/business related issues. For my criminal or family clients, I often refer clients to other support organizations that receive funding specifically to assist those groups through the legal system. 

As a parting thought, if you're considering moving to a small town you're not from, be aware that you'll be met with a lot of skepticism. Firms will grill you about your connection to the area, why you want to move there, what your plans are, etc. especially as a clerk/young lawyer. You're an investment for the firm/lawyer and, frankly, they're sick of "investing" in people that skip town after a year or two of cutting their teeth. I know friends from law school who got screened because they didn't change their transfer their out of province cell phone number to a local one. 

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Glaucon
  • Law Student
11 hours ago, Phaedrus said:

I articled in a city and relocated to a small/rural community for practice. I practice criminal family and miscellaneous "social justice" areas. 

Thanks for the perspective!

It’s good to know what my might be. I’ll definitely change my MB area code before I apply for any jobs.

Edited by Glaucon
sense-breaking typo
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CleanHands
  • Lawyer
15 hours ago, Phaedrus said:

Working with opposing counsel is interesting. I work with the same 4-5 lawyers on 95% of my files, which can be great or a massive pain the ass. I'm quite fortunate that opposing counsel here are reasonable people and are issue-focused, so a lot of work can get done in short order because we focus on what matters (and helping the clients move on). We encounter few mouth piece lawyers that advance unreasonable positions, and the local bar tend to roll their eyes when one comes into town. That said, my colleagues in the town over have the opposite problem. Everyone's deadlocked and willing to die on every hill.

I am making a move to a smaller community myself soon and I appreciate this take.

I maybe hadn't given this factor enough thought, although my interviewers did tell me the local bar was collegial.

In my limited experience thus far I have encountered one opposing counsel that I would straight up say I outright hate (with an awareness of all the ugliness that term implies). Seeing his name pop up in an email notification is enough to put me into a frothing rage at this point. And I've worked opposite him on exactly one file. The thought of someone like that potentially handling a quarter of my files is absolutely horrifying and I'd quit a week in. Lmao

Edited by CleanHands
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Glaucon
  • Law Student
7 hours ago, CleanHands said:

I am making a move to a smaller community myself soon and I appreciate this take.

I maybe hadn't given this factor enough thought, although my interviewers did tell me the local bar was collegial.

In my limited experience thus far I have encountered one opposing counsel that I would straight up say I outright hate (with an awareness of all the ugliness that term implies). Seeing his name pop up in an email notification is enough to put me into a frothing rage at this point. And I've worked opposite him on exactly one file. The thought of someone like that potentially handling a quarter of my files is absolutely horrifying and I'd quit a week in. Lmao

What moved you to search for a job in a smaller community? 
 

Starting one’s career in a bigger market sounds reasonable, but I worry that would be scary to risk a move once one settles into a comfortable position. Was something like this your plan all along; is it something you formulated along the way, or did a good opportunity just so happen to pop up???

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CleanHands
  • Lawyer
1 hour ago, Glaucon said:

What moved you to search for a job in a smaller community? 
 

Starting one’s career in a bigger market sounds reasonable, but I worry that would be scary to risk a move once one settles into a comfortable position. Was something like this your plan all along; is it something you formulated along the way, or did a good opportunity just so happen to pop up???

Thanks for your interest.

For me it was a matter of taking an articling (and post-articling) job that was a good place to start my career and gain the kind of experience, skills and knowledge that would serve me in pursuing the career I wanted...but that wasn't ultimately what I wanted to do for a full career. It turned out to be way more fulfilling than I anticipated though.

Then an opportunity did pop up that got me fired up and checked most of the boxes for allowing me to do what I went to law school to do.

It wasn't so much that I specifically wanted to work in a smaller community as that in this case doing so will probably allow me to assist some particularly vulnerable, marginalized and isolated people that really need it.

You're right on the money that the path I was on was comfortable and the new one is a lot harder. It wasn't an easy or straightforward decision.

If you want to start in a smaller community from the outset you should have no problem breaking in though.

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Glaucon
  • Law Student
1 hour ago, CleanHands said:

You're right on the money that the path I was on was comfortable and the new one is a lot harder. It wasn't an easy or straightforward decision.

If you want to start in a smaller community from the outset you should have no problem breaking in though.

Ease of entering the market is part of why I find rural practice attractive. It also sounds like there’s important and neglected work to be done outside the city. I have heard this stuff before, but just around the grad-student water cooler. Thanks for adding some detail and experience to my understanding of the area.

On 3/17/2023 at 10:22 AM, Phaedrus said:

I didn't know a soul when I moved here, but it didn't take long to make friends and go out. You have to live with the fact that there's one or two bars to go to, and the same couple restaurants to order from (or drive an hour to a better population centre). You'll run into your clients all the time and you'll hear a lot from "the grapevine". Some people find that suffocating, whereas I love the familiarity. I can see introverts struggling to adjust in a small town for this reason. Volunteering always helps and it tends to daisychain to other opportunities/groups. Everyone wants a lawyer on their board/committee, especially one that cares about community. 

These details from Phaedrus are also part of what I was hoping for. Good to know that “becoming a part of the community qua lawyer” isn’t just a total 0L delusion (caveats caveats; I’m sure mileage varies).

Cost of living versus entry-level income hold me back from taking certain rural jobs in the future; it’s the ratio that matters. So any information that anyone could add on that front could be helpful.

But anyways, thanks so much guys.

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Phaedrus
  • Lawyer
On 3/18/2023 at 9:44 AM, Glaucon said:

What moved you to search for a job in a smaller community? 
 

Starting one’s career in a bigger market sounds reasonable, but I worry that would be scary to risk a move once one settles into a comfortable position. Was something like this your plan all along; is it something you formulated along the way, or did a good opportunity just so happen to pop up???

I'm from a small town, but not the town I'm living in now. I more or less knew that moving outside the city was my end goal, family or not. I didn't know when, and expected it to happen later than it did. While I miss the restaurants and recreational activities, I don't miss the cost of living and certainly don't miss the commute.

Rural communities are attractive to me because buying a home will be within reach in the next couple years. I love to be involved in my community and feel "woven in" to the fabric, and I find that's more attainable here than in the city. They're attractive because my clients, their lives, what matters, are more relatable. And, big fish/small pond; I enjoy the small talk every 15 steps in the grocery store. 

I moved here because I found work in the practice areas I wanted, plain and simple. I turned down a few offers in the city that lacked enough supports post-call (and being able to identify that was critical). I knew what I wanted and held out until I found it, and I didn't care where it was (I was willing to go up north). 

Moving was scary, for sure. It was probably the first time since undergrad I relocated without knowing anyone. Not knowing what I'd miss, how I'd fare, if I'd be received in the town. I was pleasantly surprised with how quickly I settled. Getting in a routine helped, as did volunteering as soon as I could. 

As for workload, small towns can be shockingly busy. If you're smart you'll identify service gaps, or simply competition/conflict gaps, and fill them. You network at Chamber of Commerce events, or do pro-bono information sessions. The hard part is building trust in the community and it might be impossible to draw clients from the established lawyers, but those lawyers can be great referral sources (or have practices to inherit). Your social/networking skills become an invaluable asset. But the financial side of things can be a bummer.

Your billable rate will be lower than it is in the city, and for obvious reasons. You'll probably find yourself discounting more often than you like, or having to accommodate slower payment plans. You might rely on legal aid certificates because at least they're a guaranteed cheque. Your earnings won't approach a top city lawyer's, even if you're the only guy in a 50km radius. But, you'll still be a top earner in the community earner almost immediately out of the gate. 

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  • 5 weeks later...
SNAILS
  • Articling Student

I'm just a law student summering in a small town (30 000 people, to put "small" in context). I'm originally from the town, and it can be a small world where you encounter clients you know or who know someone you know. It also seems to be pretty easy to corner the market (or close to it) on a certain field of law. For example, it seems like our firm is doing 25-50% of the total criminal work in the jurisdiction.

The question about social life is interesting. I don't find Toronto very social because I don't go anywhere or make an effort to reach out to anyone. lol. So, being a member of a small community can be very social in comparison.

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