The nature of country law is changing rapidly as outback firms pursue innovation and growth with investment in new technologies and an upsurge in targeted recruitment.
With recruitment the number one problem facing many country law practices, some are turning to targeted recruitment strategies to help bolster their ranks.
Mark Houlahan, Director of Webb & Boland says in his experience those lawyers without some kind of personal connection to the local community do not usually stay in town long-term. So instead he entices legal talent back to town by offering summer clerkships to local students who have ventured further afield to study law. If the clerkship goes well it is usually followed up by an offer of employment.
However, these new legal recruits require training. Nurturing talent requires much investment in training and resources to supervise new lawyers, before they really begin adding value to the legal practice.
Technology is helping innovate many different sectors and country legal practices are not being left out, with many taking up new technology and software to bridge the communication divide between the city and the outback.
“The changes [from the web] have been absolutely enormous. Our resource material, access to legislation, precedents – it’s all online. It’s integral to the way we practise these days”, says Mr Houlahan.
Mr Martel, who worked for Cridlands, MB in Alice Springs, agrees. “What I do now, I probably couldn’t have done in 2004. Right now, I could be sitting anywhere in the world and still be at work. There weren’t even smart phones 10 years ago”.
“It’s an excellent background for somebody to learn the broad spectrum of legal practice”, says Mr Jongkind, owner of Charleville practice Frank Jongkind& Co. He suggests city lawyers are often put to work in a particular practice area and don’t get to spread their wings as much.
Mr Houlahan points out country firms desperately need lawyers to grow their services “For capable lawyers, there definitely is work out here. It’s a service industry and if you provide the service to the client, you’ll build a practice”, he says.
More localised legal services are needed and present opportunities for young lawyers.
“Outside of my particular town, you have to go 270 kilometres to find another practice. If younger lawyers were prepared to cross the [Great Dividing] Range, they would probably find some great opportunities”, believes Mr Jongkind.
Outback lawyers practise law within smaller communities compared to their city counter-parts and as such often form closer bonds with local residents, eventually coming to be considered part of the community. This familiarity with the locals, who make up the bulk of their clientele, can be either an advantage or disadvantage. A good reputation amongst the wider community is key to successfully practising law in the country long-term.
“It’s more rewarding on the basis that you’re working with people you know well. The possible downside as well is if you don’t receive the optimal result, you’re going to see this person for a long time afterwards. It certainly puts a bit of extra pressure on you”, notes Mr Jongkind
“In a lot of cases, you know clients or they are personal friends. If you don’t know them personally, you know of each other. Depending on how you’re perceived in the community, that may or may not be a good thing”, says Mark Houlahan, Webb & Boland Director.
Understanding bush living is a necessity for any lawyer considering to make the switch to the country as empathising and understanding client’s predicaments and where they’re coming from is vital to building trust and fostering a good relationship.
“It helps if you have some empathy or understanding with their circumstances and it gives them a bit of comfort and confidence that you’re providing a good service to them”, says Mr Houlahan.