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Regional associations: Access a challenge for lawyers outside city

Regional associations: Access a challenge for lawyers outside city

By Karin Derkley


For lawyers working outside Melbourne, the state’s regional law associations provide a crucial source of professional and personal support.

LIV president Stuart Webb says he has seen for himself on road trips the camaraderie that regional lawyers share: “I have been to dinners where tales are told, memories are shared, and friendships are developed that help build the resilience of the regional legal practitioner”. 

Some associations, like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, have histories going back as far, or even further than the LIV. All of them share common issues related to being a long way from the CBD – including the struggle to recruit and keep experienced lawyers, the challenges of travelling long distances to meet clients, and the difficulty of accessing professional development opportunities. 

Others are facing challenges specific to their regions. We asked the presidents of Victoria’s regional law associations to volunteer the most important issues they are facing in their part of the world.

Ballarat and District Law Association president James Remington: 

“A particular challenge in our region is attracting new lawyers to the area. That’s despite the many opportunities here for high-value and rewarding work across a wide range of areas and a lifestyle the city simply cannot beat. For graduate and junior lawyers, there is the opportunity to obtain excellent training and mentoring from high-calibre practitioners. There are many city lawyers interested in a “tree change” to somewhere like Ballarat. Finding out who those lawyers are and starting a conversation with them is something regional firms would benefit from greatly.

Another challenge for regional practitioners is access to CPD events. While the BDLA endeavours to deliver quality and topical CPD locally, there are many CPD events advertised in Melbourne of great interest to regional practitioners. However, it is difficult for practitioners to take time away from their busy practices to travel to Melbourne for those events. Regional practitioners would benefit greatly if they were given the opportunity to attend more CPD events by phone or video conference.“

Bendigo Law Association president Juliana Smith: 

“We’re getting a new court, which we're really excited about. But there’s a real problem here with a shortage of legal aid practitioners. Clients in need of legal aid are having to travel out of Bendigo when there are conflicts because there are just not enough legal aid practitioners available here. The system needs to be improved to encourage more practitioners to undertake legal aid work – some solicitors have said they’re better off doing work pro bono than take all the time it requires to navigate the legal aid system. 

Also, regional practitioners don’t have the same access to professional development as lawyers in the city, which means we have to take more time to fulfil our CPD requirements. It would be great if the LIV’s lunchtime or after hours CPD sessions were more accessible to regional practitioners, say via a webinar.” 

Geelong Law Association president Aaron Jolly:

“Mental health and wellbeing is a big issue facing practitioners in our region. The contributing factors are the increasing expectations of clients for round the clock access to their lawyers and greater personal responsibility placed on practitioners by changes to the law. Property law practitioners, for instance, are struggling with electronic conveyancing and complying with the constantly changing withholding requirements of the Australian Taxation Office and State Revenue Office. Members have reported feeling more like tax collectors than legal advisers, with the personal responsibility impacting on their mental health and wellbeing. 

The Geelong Law Association is seeking to address these issues by running a series of free events throughout September including yoga and meditation classes, barbecue and social activities, a seminar hosted by a medical professional on “health and wellbeing, signs of stress and prevention”, as well as providing online support throughout the month.”

Gippsland Law Association president Daniel Taylor:

“The tyranny of distance is a key ongoing challenge for all practitioners in our region, which spans Phillip Island through to Lakes Entrance and beyond. How do we meet as a law association, attend various CPD seminars or meet with clients when for many of us a typical drive is one to three hours one way to an event? While technology provides great benefits in terms of video conferencing, the quality and variety of programs doesn’t often fill our hearts with joy.

The second major issue facing Gippsland practitioners is the tyranny of time. We all seem to have lost hours in the day to more matters, more court expectations, more clients, and more technology invading every waking hour. The capacity to debrief or de-stress is also reduced and the double whammy effect of this and being isolated practitioners is one we all need to be conscious of in terms of maintaining our resilience.”

Goulburn Valley Law Association past president Danny Barlow:

“The main issues we face are those affecting the profession more generally, such as increased competition from non-lawyers creeping into what were traditionally lawyers’ fields and the cost and burden of regulation. 

However, in the regions there is the particular issue of retaining young lawyers once they get some experience. It’s not so much attracting graduates to the country. With the increased number of graduates that’s become less of an issue. But once they get experience and become attractive to the Melbourne-based firms, the opportunity arises for them to go back and a lot of them tend to want to move to the city. That makes it hard to find and keep experienced lawyers in regional areas.“

Mornington Peninsula Law Association president Kelly Beck:

“We often hear from practitioners and local firms saying they have difficulty attracting and retaining junior lawyers. Often when those lawyers have completed their “stint” out here, they take their training and experience into the city. 

The MPLA attempts to address this issue by ensuring young lawyers know about the benefits of working in a regional area, and also ensuring they feel supported by growing our young lawyer events in the region. Having said that, there is still work to be done to address this issue.” 

North East Law Association president Amanda Toner:

“The perpetual advance of technology is disrupting the practice of law in unprecedented ways. But the more entrenched issue disrupting the rural and regional profession is the recruitment and retention of lawyers. Advertised positions often garner very little interest – and if you find and recruit the right candidate, the question is: will they stay and for how long? 

The loss of talented lawyers to the city creates a perpetual cycle of recruit, train, depart, and replace that is played out in small firms and the rural offices of the country’s biggest firms. This undermines development and retention of loyal client-firm relationships, thwarts effective succession planning, and ultimately this all impacts the profitability of rural and regional firms. That has a real impact on country people who require legal services and who want and should expect to be able to get city equivalent expertise in their patch. It’s the same law whether in the bush or city and there is much to commend about being a country lawyer. It seems that too few know it.”

North West Law Association president Tristram Lock:

“The biggest issue facing practitioners in the North West of Victoria is recruitment and retention of experienced professional staff. That’s even though the legal issues here are just as varied and complex as they are in metropolitan areas. There are exciting opportunities for young lawyers seeking to gain valuable experience in the practice of law in a regional centre, as leaders through involvement in for- and not-for-profit organisations, and still have a great work-life balance.”

Western District Law Association president Jessica Dowdy:

“One issue we face living and working in the same small tight knit community is that you run into your clients everywhere you go. This is a balancing act that you get used to quickly and it does not take long to work this to your advantage. 

Another common theme in the country is lack of resources, whether it be the antiquated impractical court facilities (where you are usually required to obtain instructions in the rain, hail or shine and in a non-confidential environment), organising how our clients will get to assessments and court hearings given the lack of public transport, and balancing travelling between offices, courts and home. Another is the lack of accessible and local CPD, and a lack of professional support and networking opportunities for lawyers and support staff.”

Wimmera Law Association president Patrick Smith:

“The amount of travel required for all civil litigation (including family law) other than matters which can be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court makes litigation even more expensive in the regions than it is for city or suburban-based clients. Lawyers and our clients are usually required to travel to Ballarat or Bendigo, both more than two hours from Horsham. Obtaining expert reports can also be difficult as clients are required to travel to see the expert and the lawyer’s communication with the expert can often be only by phone prior to hearings. 

Lawyers working in the Wimmera are also more likely to feel isolated than those working in the city or suburbs. There is less socialising with each other and that could be because we are involved in matters against each other more often.” 

Pictured above: The Ballarat and District Law Association celebrates its 160th anniversary at Craig’s Royal Hotel

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