Law: Where are you, Atticus Finch?

There’s lots of work, but small towns are having trouble attracting legal talent.

What do you call a hundred lawyers practising in small-town Canada? A much-needed start. That may sound like a joke, but there’s nothing funny about a looming shortage of lawyers in rural and remote areas, where an aging bar and a scarcity of fresh blood are making it tougher for people to find a lawyer. “It’s going to reach a critical point,” warns Victoria Rees, acting executive director of the Nova Scotia Barristers Society. “When a small community loses a lawyer due to illness or death … it can have a direct impact on access to justice.”

The story is the same across the country. Some communities in British Columbia’s interior face “a pretty severe shortage of lawyers,” reports Michael Litchfield, who recruits law students for small-town firms through a pilot project. Close to three-quarters of Nova Scotia’s lawyers practise within an hour’s drive of downtown Halifax, even though the city accounts for only 40% of the province’s population. And while Manitoba boasted 1,800 lawyers in 2007, barely 40 served Thompson, Flin Flon and other northern centres.

Canada’s legal profession is aging, and the smaller the community, the older the lawyers. A 2004 survey found that one-third of Ontario lawyers practising in firms with fewer than five lawyers — typically, those in smaller communities and rural areas — were 55 or older. In Nova Scotia, one in four lawyers has been in harness for more than 35 years. As retirement thins the ranks, the need for legal services remains as strong as ever. “There’s lots of work,” says Allan Fineblit, CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba. “It’s a bad economy, some lawyers are having a hard time … and yet there are all these communities where they could make a terrific living.”

Big-city firms still attract the lion’s share of new lawyers. “We need to have the young blood realize there’s more to life out there than Bay and King,” says Diana Miles, director of professional development and competence for the Law Society of Upper Canada. Albertalawyer Adam Letourneau calls it “the prestige factor” — for most students “the ultimate goal is to work for one of the big firms, for one of the factories.”

Letourneau bucked the trend. When he graduated from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law five years ago, he turned down lucrative offers from big firms and founded his own in Raymond, a hamlet of 3,500 south of Lethbridge. “I wasn’t interested in being the bottom man on the totem pole,” he says.

That he’s not. At 36, he heads a three-man firm with offices in Raymond and Lethbridge and plans to expand soon. He’s compared notes with former classmates and reckons he works fewer hours for the same money or more. Factor in a lower cost of living and a great place to raise a family, he insists, and “you’re actually better off to work in a small centre.”

That’s a message the profession is eager to get out. Manitoba is offering tuition support for law students willing to work in northern communities, and Litchfield has found jobs this summer for more than 20 students in far-flung B.C. communities. Miles points to an array of programs to make sure older Ontario lawyers have succession plans in place and younger ones realize there are alternatives to practising in the GTA.

David Eldridge, a 60-year-old who’s tried for years to find someone to take over his practice in tiny Barrington, N.S., says a small-town lawyer can easily pull down a six-figure salary. Besides, he says, “How many lawyers in the city have their clients come to their door and hand them a bag of lobsters?”