This year I’ve had the opportunity to do some work experience in Grafton with a solicitor who works as a sole practitioner. There’s a lot that I’ve learnt about working in law in a regional, rural or country area (for ease of writing, I’ll use these terms interchangeably to encompass all three). Here are some of my observations on life as a country lawyer…
Variety of work
In the city, lawyers tend to specialise in one or two areas. In fact, entire city firms may specialise in one area of law. However, in the country, the types of work that solicitors often find themselves dealing with a vastly varied. A typical country solicitor may be doing a criminal hearing in the local court in the morning, a family conference before lunch and a property transfer in the afternoon. In the country, commercial law issues, for example, are in very short supply. However, there are many rural-specific crimes. These include things stock or semen theft (I freaked out when we learnt about that – it just refers to the ‘theft’ of semen from a bull, instead of paying to ‘use’ the bull’s ‘services’ with your own cows) or machinery theft (such as stealing a tractor).
While a country job may be more demanding in the sense that it requires you to know about such a vast array of legal areas, it can be good to vary what you’re doing, and it does help keep you on your toes. I’ve found my solicitor, even now, tells me that he’s dealing with a type of case he’s never had before.
In a country area, everyone typically knows everybody else. The Local Court is no exception to this. All the solicitors, court staff, police and correctives workers know each other, and there is often a great deal of chatting going on in the court room before the judge comes in – then it’s all business until the next coffee break. In a country area, maintaining a working relationship is especially important, as a reputation can easily be broken.
However, this can be advantageous too. If you maintain a good working relationship, your colleagues may recommend your services to another person. Another way this is beneficial is the ability to give cases to a workmate. For example, my solicitor was in trial in District Court all week, so he gave his local case to another solicitor who had a lesser workload that week. Prior to this, the other solicitor had given my solicitor some of his cases when he was away sick. This reflects the close-knit local legal community that you may encounter working in regional Australia.
In the country, you’re a lawyer even when you’re not at the office. Someone might come up to you on the street on a Saturday or down at the local footy and ask you for advice about a legal issue. Others may call you up and ask a quick question (or ten). This advice is not billed, and is often done as a courtesy, and is part of the country way of helping someone out.
Confidentiality and Conflict of Interest
In a small area, the need to keep matters confidential is even greater, as people all know each other through no more than about two degrees of separation. The smallness of a place can pose a problem. My solicitor had to turn down a job for a defendant, as he had acted previously for the complainant only several months beforehand.
Lack of resources
Another big thing about practicing in the country is the lack of resources available. For example, small areas may not have intermediate forms of punishment available, so the punishments are either very basic (fine or bond) or imprisonment.
Working in the country, like any job, does have its challenges, but the work is incredibly rewarding and I would urge you not to completely discount the idea of working outside of a city.
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