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There’s far more than simple geography that separates the business of a modern regional legal practice from its metropolitan counterpart. While the laws remain constant, it’s rural issues, the manner in which the law is applied, and the people to whom they pertain that make practising law in rural Australia a different prospect than in the city.

As principal of a regionally based legal business, Georgiena Ryan brings practical experience and insight to her role as chair of the Law Society of NSW’s Rural Issues Committee.

Ryan believes the committee, established more than 20 years ago,  is an acknowledgement that the challenges faced by rural practitioners and their clients differ from those in metropolitan areas, and are more than just “the tyranny of distance”.

“One of the issues, particularly in more remote and smaller townships with ageing solicitors, is about the succession of legal practices and the continuity of those firms,” she says. “Flowing on from that are issues around access to legal service for people who live in rural and remote areas, and that’s one of the focuses our committee has.”

Another important aspect of the committee’s remit, according to Ryan, is to reflect clients’ challenges in helping to inform government through comment and review of legislation.

Since its inception, the committee has made significant contributions to the direction of policies close to the hearts of regional clients, including the often-fraught areas of water access, allocation and ownership, farm debt mediation, the use of Crown land and the funding of local courts in regional areas. The “coal face” expertise and insights of practitioners like Ryan and her team ensure that the issues facing their clients and communities are accurately represented to government.

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Georgiena Ryan, head of Regional Business Lawyers Legal and Consulting, and chair of the Law Society of NSW's Rural Issues Committee

Ryan herself is part of a family farming operation in the southwestern slopes region of NSW, and has flexed her corporate legal muscles in the fields of water law and irrigation, in which she has extensive experience. Her team of solicitors similarly live and work in regional NSW and have skin in the game in terms of agribusiness and family farming.

“Our role as the Rural Issues Committee is really to inform the Law Society of NSW with our views to ensure that all views are being considered,” Ryan says. “I think we as rural practitioners have an insight into how legislation affects people in rural and remote areas, farmers in particular.”

‘I live it myself’

With a foot in both camps, Ryan is well-placed to understand the nuances of the law as it applies to agribusiness and rural clients, and hence to build her own practice tailored to the specific needs of the region it serves.

The name of her outfit, Regional Business Lawyers Legal and Consulting, is as straight-shooting as its principal, whose lived experience means she instinctively understands the need to cut through the legalese that can be difficult for the uninitiated to navigate.

“(That’s) a very important skill to have – to be able to take what can be very complicated and make it more easily understood.”

One area in which Ryan finds the trust borne of credibility helpful is when dealing with succession planning.

“In some respects, I live it myself,” she says, explaining that as a family farmer she understands how personal dynamics can blur the lines in decisions on how the law can best be applied. This relates not just to succession planning but also to so many facets of operating an agriculturally-based business in modern regional Australia. In contrast, as a lawyer she can communicate the nuances of the law in terms of clear obligations and the need for transparency.

I think we as rural practitioners have an insight into how legislation affects people in rural and remote areas, farmers in particular.’

Apart from the no-nonsense moniker, the thing that most strikes people about Ryan’s practice is that it comprises an entirely female team, but the makeup is neither deliberate nor targeted.

“A few people ask me that,” Ryan admits. “It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t set out to (recruit women). But I guess in some ways like attracts like.”

Keeping the balls in the air

Because Ryan comes from a background blend of experiences in regional private practice and in-house corporate operations, she brings an eclectic but very useful range of skills to bear in setting up her own legal practice.

She credits having a particular focus on rural issues as part of the reason she set up her firm, which is based in Wagga in the NSW Riverina, but admits that there was a lifestyle consideration to the move out of the city. She believes it’s that pursuit of a much-vaunted work-life balance, rather than a gender partiality, that has helped shape her team.

“When I was working in that corporate environment, it was pretty full-on. Part of the reason I left was trying to juggle the “motherload”. I set up for myself (partly) to enable me to have the flexibility to keep all those balls in the air,” Ryan says. “Following on from that, it may be that I have a bit more patience and understanding of other people who are in similar situations.”

Ryan believes that building the business to meet a need, rather than adopting a “build it and they will come” approach has helped establish Regional Business Lawyers as an operator that fills a gap in rural legal service provision.

There are extremely good, capable solicitors in regional NSW, but I think everyone’s just very busy doing what they do and it possibly frustrated me a little that there’s some really good commercial work that goes to Sydney or Canberra.

“I really wanted to try to pull some of that work back out here (to the regions) because there’s a perception that while regional solicitors can do the day-to-day stuff, they can’t do the more complex stuff,” she says of the common misconception regional professionals often have to overcome.

The benefits of technology

As with many operations in the regional and rural business sectors, Ryan’s practice has been the beneficiary of burgeoning technological advancements, which in turn has brought greater benefit than ever to a broadening client base.

One of the ways in which technology has bolstered the productivity of the practice is by enabling team members greater flexibility than ever.

“One of my solicitors works from home and technology has enabled that in a way that even 10 years ago probably wouldn’t have been possible, or certainly not as efficient,” Ryan explains.

“Technology has also had an impact in that the cost of establishing and operating a law firm is a lot less than it used to be. (Previously) if you wanted to set up a legal practice, you would have had to spend huge amounts of money on servers and all this technology within an office, and then actually be based within the office.

“These days, it’s all done by practice management software which means it’s all in the cloud, so you don’t have those big initial overheads. It’s a lot more streamlined.

“It also means I can just take my computer to a client. I have clients all over the place, and I can drive to the farm and set up my laptop,” she says of the way in which technology has made the law so much more accessible for both client and practitioner.

That same technology has made collaboration between Ryan and her team of solicitors easier, although she admits she’s still more of a “jump on the phone” type than a Zoom-er.

“That’s more a reflection of the fact that I started this business five and a half years ago, and Zoom wasn’t a widespread thing as it became after COVID,” she says, adding that collaboration is still very much a part of the business’s operation, and is done for the most part remotely.

A growth in complexity

Over her years of practising in the regional sphere, Ryan has noticed a marked uptick in the complexity of issues facing clients.

“For instance, biodiversity and carbon farming were definitely not a thing 25 years ago. Regulatory compliance has also become a big thing. Whether it be work, health and safety or employment law, that’s certainly a much bigger thing these days. The size of farms has grown, particularly (those of) successful farmers, and as those farms grow, things become more complex. Even the buying and selling of farms – as they become bigger you have to do your due diligence more than we probably ever did 20-odd years ago.”

Succession planning – an area in which Ryan herself does a lot of work – has also become “much more of a thing and it’s becoming so complicated”.

This is due in part to what she says is “incredible growth” in the value of rural property, which is not necessarily reflected by a growth in the ability to generate an income.

“Property values have meant greater inequality and that presents real challenges,” Ryan says, expressing concern over certain sectors of the legal fraternity that see opportunity in the fraught area of succession planning, particularly when it’s either not done well or not done at all.

‘Property values have meant greater inequality and that presents real challenges.’

When it comes to the law, the city-country divide is still obvious, even though elsewhere the lines are blurring.

“The big difference is that farming businesses have had to become more business-like, but there is still a very strong family element, which (differs) from a lot of city-based businesses, where you don’t have that same level of emotion involved and the business is also not the family home.”

Two degrees of separation

This is perhaps why Ryan believes there is far more to practising law in a regional area than simply a lifestyle choice, and why she would advise any lawyer aspiring to establish a practice or kick-start a career to consider a rural move.

“We tend to focus on the lifestyle aspects of living in regional areas and that’s valid when you compare it to working in the CBD of Sydney – you tend not to have to work the 14-hour days here. But actually, there’s really interesting law and business to get your teeth into.

“There are clients who are really (switched on) and a lot of very entrepreneurial farmers out there who are so wonderful to work with,” Ryan says. “I would really encourage any young lawyer who’s interested in business, commercial and property law to think about rural and regional practice as an option because the actual legal part of it is actually way more interesting than people think it is.”

Job opportunities, she points out, can tend to be “more word of mouth in country areas”.

“But if you’re genuinely interested in pursuing an opportunity in a rural and regional area, just go and talk to people, get out and knock on doors. That’s where the opportunities come up.”

Her advice goes to the point that often arises in discussion of one of the idiosyncrasies of running a business, any business, in a rural sphere: the importance of relationships.

“I think any lawyer needs to build relationships with their clients to be successful. But maybe the bigger difference with rural practice is that those relationships do tend to be a bit deeper and multi-generational.

“In the country, the whole concept of six degrees of separation is more like two degrees. There’s every chance you’re going to see your client at the races or the footy, more so than in the city, so it pays to be a decent human being. It can be a lot harder to separate your social persona from your work persona.

“That can be good and it can be bad.”