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In December 2023, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) called on the Commonwealth government to reduce the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt and provide indexation relief for law graduates who spend at least two years living and working in an eligible regional area.

In June 2023, the Regional Australia Institute reported that – owing to cost of living pressures – two in five urban workers in all major capital cities would move to a regional or rural area if a financial incentive was involved. That is the basis for the Law Council advocating for a Commonwealth policy to encourage qualified legal practitioners to live and work outside of cities and suburbs. The proposal is that a Commonwealth Department of Education-administered scheme would introduce a Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt reduction and indexation relief initiative be introduced for qualified individuals who work in an eligible regional or rural area for a specified period of time.

LSJ spoke to solicitors Kymberlei Goodacre and Jason Goode about the feasibility of the LCA’s proposed scheme, and how it could best be delivered to provide sustained, high-quality legal services within regional and rural areas.

A bush lifestyle holds cost of living appeal

Goodacre founded Coffs Law Co in 2014 in Coffs Harbour. She’d spend nearly a decade prior working in the ACT and NSW, including extensive work with NSW Legal Aid. Her private practice encompasses civil, family, conveyancing and commercial law.

After finishing her schooling in Canberra and attending the College of Law Australia, she participated in a regional and remote program through Queensland Legal Aid that has similarities to the scheme proposed by LCA.

“I was placed in a private practice in Charters Towers, where I had to do about 70 percent of legal aid work in that position and there was a subsidy for my employer. The incentive for me was that they paid my College of Law PLT fees, which at the time was around $12,000. They moved me to Charters Towers from my home in Coffs Harbour, but I returned back to Coffs Harbour because my parents are here.”

Still, “there’s a lot of scope for how a scheme could be rolled out”, Goodacre says.

“Regions can’t afford to pay more experienced lawyers what they’re getting in the cities, which is one of the biggest hurdles for keeping people in the regions. I’ve had a number of junior lawyers at my firm. You get young Sydney lawyers in, particularly with Legal Aid and particularly in criminal law, but after two years they’re back in Sydney.”

She suspects the demands of working in a regional firm might surprise some young lawyers, though the experience is priceless.

“Once you’re in regions, you’re at the coalface and you sink or swim; you learn quickly. That’s an issue if you talk about early career lawyers, and I think a program similar to my experience with Legal Aid was really good. I had a principal solicitor at that firm who could give me guidance and I had the support of Queensland Legal Aid for continuing legal education.”

From the city to the bush: obstacles and incentives

“Can city people make it in the bush?” ponders Goodacre. “You can’t just go in there and then fly home to Sydney every weekend. You have to be willing to integrate into the community, so is it an area where you feel you can fit in? Do you have a need to be part of that community?”

The cost of living standards are a major advantage.

“You don’t have to make as much in the bush to have the same level of living, without the commutes and tolls. But there are not the same facilities you’re used to,” says Goodacre.

“In Coffs, we have a great university, hospital, regional airport, and a lot of services, but in, say, Cowra you haven’t got a university campus nor airfield and the nearest hospital is in Orange or Bathurst. To try to attract and retain talent there, how can they be supported to develop their relationships within community to stay there?”

That’s the challenge – not only luring younger lawyers to regional areas but ensuring there are the services and facilities they need to stay there.

“Young lawyers who start families [in regional areas] get great bang for their buck with housing, but services, like private schooling, are limited. My daughter went to a boarding school in Sydney, and my second child stayed here. I see a huge difference in the education level, so [the LCA proposed scheme] is not a quick-fix.”

She says, “The secret is if you can have that solicitor that’s going out to the country becoming ingrained in the community with the help of mentors to help them settle in to address loneliness and developing social bonds within community, it’s far more likely you’re going to stay there.”

Goodacre is enthusiastic about the quality of life that trumps city living, in her opinion.

“I could rave about the benefits of working in the country, I love it. My education was in Canberra and my early career in public service was in Canberra. I went to the bush after a marriage breakdown. I lived in Orange, Bathurst, Melton Bay, Charters Towers in far north Queensland, Coffs Harbour, and I’ve got friends in all of them. The country has my soul. I think city-born people can make it in the bush, if you accept that life is slower and much more manageable.”

She adds, “Work life balance means I can get to work within five minutes, and you can’t do that in Sydney. I’m mortgage-free as a single parent in my 50s, which would be a real challenge in the city.  “

Tried-and-trusted scheme already working in Temora

Solicitor and Director of Farrell Goode, Jason Goode is based in Temora, in the Riverina region of NSW. He has been a member of both the Law Society of NSW Elder Law, Succession and capacity committee, and the Rural issues Committee. His roots in Temora, where he was born and raised, have been strengthened throughout his adult life and he is a member of numerous local committees in the Riverina shire.

He says the LCA proposed solution of HECS debt-relief is “one of a number of solutions that we need to encourage.”

Goode tells LSJ, “We need a range of different options. Paying off HECS would be one effective choice. A law course is between three and four times more expensive than a nursing course, so students leave university with a significant HECS debt, which hangs over them.”

City firms can afford to pay more because they charge more for clients, Goodacre explains. “You need to bill at least six hours a day, but we don’t do time costing and if we did, our clients wouldn’t be able to afford a solicitor. We’re aware that our clients don’t have large sums of money to pay on legal fees. In saying that, we don’t pay the big salaries of the city, but the cost of living is so much less. You can get a 3-bedroom house in Temora for under $350,000. A lot of people don’t realise that until they come to live and work in the community. Plus, you don’t have to work the big hours and late nights you do in the city. We open at 8:30am and close at 5pm and we don’t expect people to work overtime unless there’s something they really need to get done.”

Goode echoes Goodacre in emphasising the need for community cohesion.

“[Newly arrived lawyers] have to become part of the local community, and solicitors here are all members of local community groups and on boards of the local golf club, school groups or the local bank. Things like local sporting groups or the dramatic society enable newcomers to become part of the community.”

He suggests that “the HECS debt-relief scheme would be particularly relevant to those who have come from the country initially. When people leave a place like Temora, they do a 5-year law course in Sydney and they form strong friendship bonds or they meet their romantic partner, so there’s ties to keep them in the city. You need to encourage them to come back and to make it worthwhile. Sometimes you need to provide a job for their partner too, and Temora is a town of 4,700 people so finding two jobs can be difficult, which is something that you’d need to be mindful of.”

The medical industry has long provided study-relief schemes to drive doctors, nurses and allied health practitioners to regional and rural areas.

“The incentives for nurses to move to the country is around $20,000 which is a real talking point,” says Goode. “Once people come back here and find a job and a house, and they’re not working long hours and their weekends are free to relax, they do like it and they stay.”

He says, “I would think a minimum of two years would be reasonable because that’s something where people know they’re there for long enough to invest their time getting involved.”

Goode has been operating his own scheme effectively, suggesting the LCA proposal could be a winner.

“I was a sole practitioner for close to 20 years and I tried various ways to encourage graduate solicitors to move here and hit the ground running. However, they weren’t local people and they didn’t want to stay, so I started getting people out of high school and offering 12-month traineeship to see if they fit in with our firm… After that 12 months, if they’re a good fit, I offer them a full-time job and I pay a year of their university fees on the basis that they work for a year for me on a quid pro quo basis. When they graduate, they don’t have a HECS fee, and they stay on with me for four or five years after graduation. It’s a good system and I have three solicitors still with me that have done that. They’re local people so they’re more likely to stay and they have foundations in the community.”

Goode’s trainees study law online, and Goode concedes it is “a big commitment to work full time and study as well.”

He gives them study leave to do their exams and time off for assignments.

“I’ve gone from being a sole practitioner to having three other full-time solicitors and another who graduates at the end of this year.  One of the solicitors has come into partnership with me after being with me for 12 years now, another has been with me for seven years, and another for six including their study period. Once they graduate, they’ve worked with me for four or five years, so they know everything form the ground up from doing certificate 3 in business administration in the beginning. They can do everything from opening a file to attending a hearing at the local court.”