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No one to replace retiring lawyers

|Written By Helen Burnett-Nichols

Although demand for legal services remains strong in communities across Ontario, a lack of young practitioners in smaller communities is making succession planning difficult at law firms facing the imminent retirement of senior lawyers.

Peter Hrastovec’s firm in Windsor began the process of dissolution recently due to problems in finding people to take over the business.

“It’s difficult to find another lawyer just to come in and step into your shoes. That’s the biggest problem in northern Ontario,” says Murray Ellies, a Kirkland Lake, Ont., lawyer who has been working on retirement plans.

Called to the bar in 1962, Ellies practises out of Kirkland Lake but works as far away as Timmins, Cochrane, Haileybury, and New Liskeard.

Speaking from a small mining community of 8,000 people, Ellies says although the lifestyle is “excellent” and the income is good, it’s difficult to find lawyers who want to settle in isolated areas in part due to the slowdown in the lumber and mining industries.

“You can’t easily get anyone that will move up to the area, and most of my clients, the criminal clients, are from the large surrounding area and they usually come by reason of reputation as opposed to anything else,” he says, noting his solution is to reduce his caseload while being careful to continue to have enough income to run an office.

“I think less and less lawyers are migrating to small towns, which causes a problem,” he says.

“Certainly, there’s a market here for it, anybody that wants to work,” he adds.

But part of the problem relates to an “informational vacuum” for younger lawyers that organizations such as the County & District Law Presidents’ Association and the Law Society of Upper Canada are trying to fill, says CDLPA chairman Randall Bocock.

“If you identify with [young lawyers] what their criteria and goals are for practice, you start to scratch your head and wonder why they aren’t flocking to smaller communities,” he says.

Such criteria include lifestyle, a community in which to raise a family, and the need to escape “urban blight.”

“When you look at that, it’s as though there’s a mismatch of information because those very benefits exist outside of Toronto,” he says.

At the same time, the demand remains strong for legal services outside the Greater Toronto Area. “It’s important that we remember that unless we’re always mindful [of] that need, we’re going to not address the serious problem of the greying of the bar,” especially outside of Toronto where a disproportionate number of lawyers are over the age of 55, Bocock explains.

“We can’t plan for succession as a practitioner in communities outside of Toronto unless there’s supply of people to assume and inherit your practice,” he explains.

Bocock notes that CDLPA is currently working in conjunction with the law society to set up job fairs at law schools to recruit people to smaller communities.

CDLPA has also set up a section on its web site on long-term succession planning and recruitment of new lawyers to provide a reservoir of talent to inherit those practices.

Meanwhile, in Windsor, economic changes have also led to difficulties in finding people who want to buy into a law practice, says lawyer Peter Hrastovec.

He was formerly managing partner in the Windsor office of Raphael Partners LLP, which began the process of dissolution in the last year due to problems with succession planning. He now works as a sole practitioner in association with some of his former partners.

As time went on for the firm, he says, the difficulty was in finding people who wanted to become part of the partnership, invest in the firm, and had the same sort of mindset in terms of the growth of the practice.

“We found that it was difficult to find those components in other people in our community when in fact the community was going through great change,” he says.

The issue is cyclical, at least in Windsor, where Hrastovec saw a similar phenomenon when he started practising in 1984.

Hrastovec, who has a focus on employment and labour law and commercial litigation, says the trend of fewer lawyers taking on articling students also is indicative of the economy and the way law practice is going.

“The difficulty, of course, in this community is [that] because opportunities are somewhat limited, younger students from this law faculty here in Windsor and elsewhere decide either not to stay or come to this community and go to Toronto, go to larger centres with the hope of at least gaining some experience maybe with the thought of coming back here at some point in time. But no one is really committing,” he says.

While there has been an economic draw to Toronto for many lawyers, Bocock notes that an otherwise desperate situation in the economy may in fact provide some benefits to the legal profession outside of the province’s biggest city.

“I suspect that the economic slowdown may in fact ebb that tide somewhat and present a window of opportunity to try and expand the opportunities and the benefits of locating in smaller communities outside of Toronto,” he says.

Hrastovec, too, says he remains optimistic for the future and believes that when he does retire, there will be someone who will be able to take over.

“I’m not at all concerned that there’s going to be a lack of good people available. It’s a question of being able to nurture them and work with them and bridge the gap basically and give them that opportunity to be able to carry these practices and these firms forward.”

  • Plenty of work

    Rural AB
    I am an 04 bar call and left the big smoke about 2 years ago for rural Alberta. Now have my own office and 2 support staff.

    Stress is different than in a big firm, but still there. Miss the interaction with other members of the big firm, and the accounting department. But like the fact I can go to the lake without having to book a holiday.

    While I won't be sad when some of the old guys retire, I am concerned about the access to justice issues. I am turning away a number of criminal and family clients every week because we can't keep up.

    I wish I could say to some of my 'wanting to make a real difference' classmates that if you really want to help a lot of people, and make a reasonable living, look at going to a smaller centre.
    Oh wait, maybe I just did.
  • Lawyers in small communities

    Wilfred Day
    Northumberland County is a good example of what this article describes. No one could imagine better places to raise a family than Port Hope and Cobourg. For that reason, some Toronto practitioners have moved here, and when they get tired of the commute, relocate their practices. Yet we have no young criminal defence counsel.
  • Succession

    I work in a smaller northern community in Western Canada. There is a shortage of lawyers here as well. I have choosen to go it alone insted of buying into an existing firm. Partners of established small firms vastly overetimate the value of their firms. In many ways an existing firm is more of a burden than an asset. The only things on an existing firm's balance sheet that are worth anything is the money in the bank, current ARs and current WIP. Goodwill, library, computer systems,.... forget about it.
  • Succession

    Other items that may have some value would be the 300+ minute books and the 650+ wills that some of us have in our vault. Pretty hard to say to two and sometimes three generations of a family you have acted for for 30+ years that sorry you are quitting and have no one to take over their family's business. At least someone who was taking over my practice would have a foot in the door with those clients. Just a thought.
  • Minute books maybe - Wills no thanks

    The minute books and the relationship with established businesses could be worth some money but these business people have come to trust their lawyer and may not want to be handed over to a new, young lawyer. I bet at least half of the 650+ Wills have been revoked already and the storage costs are much higher then the potetial business they will generate.
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