The realities of regional, rural and remote legal practice are usually good, sometimes bad, and often surprising.
In his corporate law job in Sydney, Matt Lyster’s BlackBerry was his only survival tool.
Now, as a community lawyer in Broken Hill, Lyster’s must-have resources include a UHF radio, GPS, satellite locator beacon, portable solar charger, and portable air compressor to fix punctures.
“There are certainly significant differences in remote practice,” he says. “Every day is really an adventure out here. We operate our service a lot like a GP clinic.
“There is a waiting room and I have to go out and call someone’s name, greet them, and then we go to my office. I ask them something like, ‘How can I help today?’
“Often, I literally have no idea what the issue is going to be. In one day I might see clients about unfair dismissal, someone seeking an administrative law review of a decision of a government department, someone who would like to make a victim of crime application after being sexually assaulted, and someone who has been mauled by a dog. Under the supervision of my inspirational principal, these people all become my clients and I have to figure out how to assist them.
“The majority of the legal work I do I did not study at law school. You have to do a lot of thinking and learning on your feet.”
Lyster was born in South Africa and moved to Sydney’s leafy north shore at the age of nine when his mother, Rosemary, took up a position at the University of Sydney (where she is now a professor of environmental law). Lyster, now 28, studied a degree in economics and social sciences, and then law. He landed a highly sought after summer clerkship at global giant Allen & Overy, and was subsequently offered a graduate position. Competition was fierce, and only seven young guns were hired out of about 600 who applied.
So it was out-of-the-box when, just six months after commencing his graduate role, the former Barker College student opted out to pursue a career in social justice in Broken Hill.
“Before heading out west, I was fortunate to do an internship with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s International Crimes Evidence Project, which was a tremendous inspiration to pursue a legal career that makes a difference to society,” Lyster says.
It all started when his fiancée (now wife), Cecily Nichols, was posted to Broken Hill Hospital as part of her training as a doctor. Lyster followed and for two months filled his days as a volunteer at the Far West Community Legal Centre. When a full-time position came up he seized it – despite the fact Cecily had moved back to the city for her medical training.
“In the human rights space there is no clear path. You have to take control of your own brand and career,” Lyster reflects. “When I was thinking of leaving Sydney, most people advised me to do what feels right for me.
“From day one, I was dealing with real clients with real legal issues. While it has been daunting at times, having to stand on my own two feet, building a practice and a brand, has been terrific.”
As it turns out, Cecily landed a permanent role at Broken Hill Hospital and the couple has set up a busy life in the town of 18,000 people 1100 kilometres west of Sydney.
“I took a substantial pay cut to move here but we love the lifestyle,” Lyster says. “Sure, we would like to see our family and friends more, but the lifestyle balance is so great.
“Our commute is literally 10 minutes return and I get home at 5 o’clock every day. We also love the kayaking, bushwalking, bird watching and the outdoors. The clear, starry skies and incredible landscapes make this a terrific place to live.
“We would love to stay remote. There is so much job satisfaction. The matters are small on the global spectrum – for example, helping someone who has lost his licence, has two children and will lose his apprenticeship if he can’t drive – but they really matter.
“You get almost tear-jerking moments. People thank you and say you really touched and made a difference to their lives. They can’t afford to pay for private solicitors. This is why I studied law: to help people and really make a difference.”
One program Lyster enjoys is running a fortnightly outreach clinic at Menindee, 120 kilometres south of Broken Hill.
“It’s an access to justice program and I go there with a sign and set up like a shopfront and help whoever I can,” he says.
How he practises law, however, is very different to in the city.
“Because of the nature of many of our clients (low income, social disadvantage, low literacy, cultural differences) lots of our work is face-to-face,” he says.
“We need to take a lot of time in explaining things. Many clients don’t have access to the internet or email and still feel uncomfortable with technology, so there is a lot of trust and relationship-building through meeting in person. Many clients get so much just from coming in and having a chat. Occasionally, it transpires that there isn’t a substantive legal issue we can assist them with, but they really appreciate the cup of tea.
“I recently drove 660 kilometres to teach a School of the Air lesson on ‘What is the law’ in the remote town of Tibooburra. We also had a family law client living up there who needed to see a solicitor and they couldn’t drive. I took up speakers and a projector and put on a movie for the young station kids. It was their first experience with such a massive screen and they really enjoyed it. Of course, we used the event to engage with locals about legal issues and assist where we could.
“Many matters involve assisting victims of serious domestic violence and other significant trauma, and I have to give support to these clients in person. For clients without access to mobiles or landlines, it’s obviously not appropriate for them to speak about these issues at the one public phone booth in the town.
“We can’t keep up with the demand to see clients Monday to Friday with only three solicitors. To address this, we have started a Saturday morning clinic between 10am and 1pm. It’s on a first come, first served basis and we give one-off advice or take initial instructions. We then try to get people an appointment, but it can mean several weeks wait. Sometimes the doors shut before people have had a chance to see us. It’s very hard to turn people away, but with limited resources we can only do so much.”
The majority of the legal work I do I did not study at law school. You have to do a lot of thinking and learning on your feet.
Community lawyer, Broken Hill
A patchwork of practice
While Sydney has four solicitors per 1,000 residents, in remote areas of NSW there is one solicitor per 2,440 residents, according to the recent report Lawyer Availability and Population Change in Regional, Rural and Remote Areas of NSW, published by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
The research included a census of all solicitors registered with the Law Society of NSW in 2011, plus a detailed analysis of all filled and vacant public legal assistance positions in NSW. The team also included in-depth interviews with 18 (out of 41) private and public solicitors who practised law in rural and remote areas that had experienced significant population loss over the past decade and that had fewer than five solicitors. Interestingly, the research found that 19 NSW local government areas (of 152 in total) had “not a single registered practising solicitor” in 2011 and 14 local government areas had just one or two.
“Many areas of NSW are marked by high general levels of socio-economic disadvantage … [especially those] that have experienced sustained loss of population,” the report noted.
“Generally speaking, the further one travels (west) away from Sydney and the east coast, the greater the general level of disadvantage, with the remote/very remote areas of NSW being marked by extreme socio-economic disadvantage.
“Disadvantage is broader than poverty and reflects multiple and compounding types of social inequality and social exclusion.”
One of the authors and the law and Justice Foundation’s Director, Geoff Mulherin, says that the legal sector needs to change its focus to the “right” problem.
“While recruitment and retention challenges exist, especially in the more remote areas of NSW, our research shows that the major factors affecting lawyer availability are the changing demographic and economic circumstances affecting regional, rural and remote areas.
“The lack of solicitors in many areas is not the result of recruitment and retention issues, but rather a question of the existence and sustainability of solicitor positions in the first place. Strategies aimed at attracting lawyers to regional, rural and remote areas can only be effective if there are positions for them to fill or if the economic circumstances in a particular area support the establishment of a new legal practice.
“A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. We need to tailor legal services – both private and public – to suit the particular needs and demographic trends of an area”.
Cooma solicitor and Law Society councillor Joanne van der Plaat, who chairs the Law Society of NSW Rural Issues Committee, says it’s time the legal profession became proactive about attracting young solicitors, including law graduates, to the bush.
“There’s an issue in terms of succession,” van der Plaat says. “Many rural solicitors are over 50 and it begs the question, who will take over?
“How you attract young solicitors to the bush seems to be a perennial problem. Money is a big part of it, particularly if you want to employ someone who has been working in the city.
“But it’s also an issue of awareness. Firms in the country don’t often advertise for solicitors. In our firm, we have expanded so have just moved to a new building for the first time since 1900. We want more practitioners and will mostly use word of mouth to find people.”
Despite anecdotal concerns about the difficulty finding and keeping legal talent in rural and remote areas, the Law and Justice Foundation report found the actual number of solicitors in regional, rural and remote across NSW increased, not decreased from 1988 to 2011. Solicitor vacancy rates for public legal assistance positions in 2011 also were relatively low at about 7 per cent in Sydney and 9 per cent outside of Sydney.
The study noted there were inter-regional variations, with some regions losing solicitors and others gaining solicitors. For example, while the North Western and Northern regions gained 10 and four solicitors between 2009 and 2011, the Murray and Mid-North Coast regions each lost five solicitors. When it came to public legal assistance positions, high levels of vacancies were found in South Eastern and Far West regions whereas the Murray and Central West regions had no vacancies in 2011.
“The evidence shows that lawyer availability in regional, rural and remote NSW is not predominantly related to recruitment and retention challenges, although such issues will often have an impact, especially in the more remote areas,” Mulherin says.
Still, the report uncovered some troubling trends.
“Quite a few regional, rural and remote lawyers are of the age when they would like to retire,” principal author Michael Cain says. “Some expressed the idea that they couldn’t retire because there was no one to take over and that, in their opinion, their practice was ‘practically worthless’. They also saw themselves as being a ‘face in the community’ and providing a much valued public service.”
The report found that the median age of “non-corporate solicitors” (defined as solicitors who deal with the legal issues of individuals rather than corporations and businesses) was 41.8 years in NSW major cities, 51.0 in inner regional areas, 52.8 in outer regional areas, and 46.1 years in remote and very remote areas.
One important demographic trend has been the growth of what are referred to as “sponge cities”, large regional centres such as Tamworth, Orange, Wagga Wagga and Dubbo, at the expense of surrounding rural areas and smaller towns. Changes in solicitor numbers appear to parallel broader population movements.
Between 2001 and 2011, 29 “very remote and outer regional local government areas” lost more than 18,000 residents whereas eight “sponge cities” together added more than 10,300 people to their populations.
Bourke in the northwest, for example lost 27.4 per cent of its population between 2001 and 2011 (now 2,867 people), Brewarrina 18.4 per cent, Jerilderie 22.2 per cent, Murrumbidgee 15.1 per cent, and Gilgandra 9 per cent. In that period, populations in the major regional centres increased: Orange up 2.9 per cent to 38,000, Greater Taree up 4 per cent to 46,000, Tamworth 4.3 per cent to 56,000, Albury up 4.8 per cent to 47,000 and Wagga up 4.8 per cent to 59,000.
“Some one-lawyer towns might become bigger, whereas others may continue to experience population loss, contracting services and economies and, therefore, reduced work opportunities,” Cain says.
“Overall, solicitor numbers follow broad population trends; and demographic and economic changes are driving the level of legal work available.
“What the legal community should be asking is, how do we provide – and continue to provide – legal services to small towns and rural areas affected by diminishing populations?”
Only one NSW region was better off in terms of its residents-to-solicitor ratio between 2009 and 2011. The North Western region gained 10 registered solicitors, up to 114 solicitors in 2011. In that time, the population increased by just 0.1 per cent.
Many rural solicitors are over 50 and it begs the question, ‘Who will take over?‘
JOANNE VAN DER PLAAT,
An innovative approach
Third generation country solicitor Bill Thompson, who has been a director of Commins Hendriks since 1985, says recruiting staff in rural areas has become tougher since 1979 when he moved from Canberra back to Coolamon near Wagga. He claims the figures on jobs for lawyers in the bush aren’t accurate as larger regional centres such as Newcastle and Wollongong are classed as “country”.
The firm has taken an innovative approach, developing a law clerk program in which young members of the community – and what Thompson calls “the hidden treasure” – are encouraged to complete their law studies by correspondence while working at the firm. The company’s directors include three men in their late 50s, two women in their mid 30s and in July a third young female director will join the team.
“The hidden treasure within every legal office is the mature paralegals and law clerks who have great practical skills and experience but do not have formal qualifications,” he says. “The solicitor shortage in the bush could be cured if country practices encouraged and supported their hidden treasure to complete their law studies.”
Commins Hendriks employs some law clerks straight out of school and develops other staff who go back to study by correspondence after having children. Their training is subsidised and they are encouraged to study law part-time while working full-time. Thompson says that in the past two years three men and two women have been admitted as solicitors under the scheme.
He says the approach allows staff to avoid the high cost of relocating to Sydney or Canberra and creates opportunities for potential legal minds who may not have achieved the high marks required to study law in the city. Other staff members have completed conveyancing courses through Macquarie University. “It can be challenging to get someone with a spouse who is country-friendly and can find a job here or has connections in the country,” Thompson says. “This is one way we are developing staff and boosting our talent pool locally.”
The solicitor shortage in the bush could be cured if country practices encouraged and supported staff to complete their law studies.
Changes to practice
Griffith lawyer and 2015 president of the Law Society of NSW John Eades says he analysed the practice areas of his firm of four partners and two solicitors and found little change over 20 years. Conveyancing, probate and wills, local court issues and family law have long been the main practice areas.
The biggest change, he says, has been in new technology, which – apart from a demise in secretaries with Pittman shorthand skills – has brought “some efficiencies”. “As a sole trader, absence is a problem for the business,” he says. “Solicitors only get paid for the work they do. When they are doing nothing, they are not generating income. There are practical issues, too. There are always matters that need attention and you don’t know when you can take leave or what’s going to come up.
“Rural solicitors feel a major responsibility towards their communities. Organising leisure time can be difficult.
“After more than 40 years of practice in the country, the problems are still the same. One of the big ones is how to attract lawyers to work here.”
Eades last month began a tour of regional NSW as part of his pledge to “represent the entire profession”. He shares the story of his firm advertising for a solicitor seven years ago. Nine solicitors applied, seven were offered interviews, and not one went ahead as each applicant changed their mind on the idea of practising away from the city. A 2009 Law Council study confirmed this and predicted the problem of recruitment in regional, rural and remote areas would only get worse as a large number of experienced principals retired.
Four in 10 principals surveyed indicated their practice did not have enough lawyers to service their client base and practitioners reported they were concerned about the future of the profession in regional, rural and remote regions. The study, based on online surveys of 1185 solicitors practising in regional, rural and remote areas nationally, found law firms and community legal centres were unable to find suitable lawyers to fill vacancies and were feeling the strain of constant staff turnover.
The sole solicitor
In Blayney, a town of 3,300 a few hours west of Sydney, solicitor Tricia Arden enjoys her job as a sole solicitor.
Arden, 54, grew up in Moree and has worked on the Sunshine Coast and in Armidale. She moved to Blayney in 2007 to run the local office of Cheney & Wilson (a firm that has been in Blayney since the late 1800s and in the current building since 1917).
In 2013, when the firm decided it only wanted to run a practice in Orange, 38 kilometres away, Arden bought them out and changed the firm’s name to Arden Law.
Her husband, barrister Peter Arden SC, retired from the Bar in 2006 to run a cattle farm at Lyndhurst (between Blayney and Cowra).
Her daily drive to her office takes 30 minutes – half on gravel from the property to the highway. She laughs when she explains she often arrives at the office wearing work boots.
“I am happy to be working in the country,” she says. “There is no real downside except when you have a difficult file and there’s no one to pass it onto.
“I really like my clients and the variety of work. Practising law in the country is all about trust. I once had a potential client quiz my personal assistant about whether I had a country background. In Blayney, people want to see local people.”
While she is a sole practitioner, Arden says her support team is vital. She employs a full-time and part-time personal assistant and says she had no trouble recruiting good talent.
“One special thing about practising in the country is the variety of the work,” she says. “However, it can be difficult to stay remote from clients’ issues as they become friends.
“I was really pleased when a second sole practitioner started working in Blayney a couple of years ago. Now I have someone to send clients to for independent advice.
“I am lucky to have contacts at the Bar and I believe many barristers are also ready to help isolated practitioners.”
In the country it can be difficult to stay remote from clients’ issues as they become friends.
The young lawyer perspective
Criminal lawyer Rob Hoyles says he would recommend working out of the city in regional, rural and remote areas – and at 30 he has worked with Legal Aid NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Service.
“A lot of young lawyers like to go rural to earn their stripes and prove they can make it in a high-volume, isolated area with high levels of social disadvantage,” he says. “It’s an easy way to get experience fast. Dubbo Legal Aid has a higher volume of people with significant disadvantage and mental health issues. I loved working there. That’s why I wanted to be a criminal lawyer – to help people and be at the coalface.
“Being involved in NSW Young Lawyers also helped me meet people and network when I moved to the rural towns. It was a lifesaver in a way.”
After university, Hoyles worked at the NSW Court of Appeal and as a researcher for Justice Keith Mason before joining a private criminal firm for two years. He moved to Dubbo for an opportunity in Legal Aid, then to the Wagga Wagga Aboriginal Legal Service including some court cases in the remote Wentworth and Balranald before moving to Coffs Harbour and now Port Macquarie with Legal Aid NSW.
He is now setting up a new Legal Aid office in Port Macquarie, in between the socially disadvantaged communities of Taree and Kempsey. Nine lawyers and four support staff were recruited for the new office in December and Hoyles, who is Acting Solicitor in Charge at Legal Aid in Port Macquarie, says “there was no struggle to fill the positions”.
“In Legal Aid the money is less than what you might get in a corporate firm,” he says. “But I really like them as an employer. They care about work/life balance and we are well resourced. Working for Legal Aid out of Sydney also allows for more opportunity and a broader practice, whereas in city offices the work is much more specialised to a particular practice area.”
He says technology, including audio-visual link, has revolutionised the way jails bring prisoners to court and makes the daily life of solicitors – particularly those working out of Sydney – easier.
A lot of young lawyers like to go rural to earn their stripes and prove they can make it in a high-volume, isolated area with high levels of social disadvantage,
Legal Aid NSW, Port Macquarie
Funding crisis: Broken Hill Community Legal Service
Mariette Curcuruto, 41, has been a lawyer for 18 years in a suburban firm in Brisbane, a firm in Moree where she worked her way up to litigation partner, and now – since 2010 – in Broken Hill. She moved to the far west when her husband, former Law Society president Geoff Dunlevy, took a job as Magistrate at Broken Hill. At the time they had a two-year-old and Curcuruto was pregnant with their second child.
“Geoff grew up in Broken Hill and had to do some country service as all magistrates are required to do,” she says.
“We both love Broken Hill, so it made sense to come here. It’s a lovely place to raise children with terrific services for the kids. Our son is on the autism spectrum and when he was diagnosed the specialist advised us to stay in Broken Hill because the early intervention programs were so good. It was difficult to be in a regional practice when my husband was the magistrate, so I started working at the Community Legal Centre.”
Curcuruto is now principal solicitor at the Far West Community Legal Service and is concerned about planned funding cuts. “The work is vital and domestic violence is a serious issue here,” she says. “There is no Legal Aid office in Broken Hill and the remote location means you can’t drive for an hour and find another service. Our funding has been halved in Abbott Government cuts, and if these cuts go ahead we will decrease from a service with three solicitors to having just one. We really hope there’s a change of mind.”
Tracey Willow, the chief executive officer of the Far West Community Legal Centre, says funding is a continuing problem for the service. The Abbott Government has announced cuts of $190,000 a year from the service from 30 June, which she says will put at risk the services offered as well as the jobs of three solicitors and Willow.
“We are one of the lowest funded community legal services in NSW,” she says. “These cuts will have a dramatic effect on our services.”
Our funding has been halved in Abbott Government cuts, and if these cuts go ahead we will decrease from a service with three solicitors to having just one.
Lawyer, Broken Hill
NSW practice: the state of play
152 Local Government Areas
- 19 LGAS = no solicitors
- 14 LGAS = 1 or 2 solicitors
- Sydney = 4 solicitors per 1,000 people
- Remote = 1 solicitor per 2,440 peopl
Median age of non-corporate solicitors
- NSW major cities = 42
- Inner regional cities = 51
- Outer regional cities = 53
- Remote and very remote = 46
- 18,000 people left very remote and outer regional areas
- 10,300 increase in populations of eight regional centres
Source: Law and Justice Foundation