In March of 2009, the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch (CBABC), with funding from the Law Foundation of BC, launched the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Initiative (REAL). This initiative was the first of its kind in Canada to recognize the importance of ensuring continued access to legal services in small communities and rural areas and to highlight the challenges that these communities were and continue to face. The Initiative was established as a coordinated set of programs to address the current and projected shortage of lawyers in these communities which was brought about by the aging of the profession as a whole and the preference among new lawyers to practice in urban regions. These realities were backed by data showing an average age of lawyers in British Columbia over 50 years old and a survey of articled students showing that over 85% of students were planning to practice in the urban areas of Vancouver/Victoria or were leaving the province. REAL is now into its fifth year, which provides a useful opportunity to review the Initiative and the lessons learned throughout.
The first phase of the REAL Initiative began in March of 2009 and continued until March of 2011. This phase focused on the hiring of a Regional Legal Careers Officer (a position I held from 2009-2011 and am currently occupying) the establishment of the REAL Summer Student Program and engagement with a variety of stakeholders including the local and county bar associations, universities, students and the public at large. The second phase of the Initiative began in March of 2011 and was made possible with funding and support from the Law Society of BC as well as the CBABC.
The first lesson learned through this phase was that many stakeholders outside of rural areas and small communities were not aware of the demographic issues facing the profession and that some, such as the general public and government, required a level of awareness building to understand what the potential difficulties regarding access to legal services were. There was also level of awareness building within the university and student environment required to counter a long held belief that rural positions were less desirable and provided less professional opportunities. Five years out, I believe that one of the principal successes of the Initiative has been a dramatic shift in this awareness and in the dialogue at law schools regarding small community and rural opportunities.
The Summer Student Program was perhaps the most impactful component of the REAL Initiative and was focused on providing support and funding to law firms in small communities to hire a second year summer student. The program began in 2009 and in the first three years placed 52 students, approximately 50% of which received an offer to article in the community. In phase two of the Initiative an additional 28 positions were created.
Five years out, the REAL Initiative is widely regarding as a successful Initiative that many other jurisdictions are currently seeking to replicate. The main points of success include a significant increase in awareness of the demographic and geographic challenges facing the legal profession in BC, a noticeable shift in interest in rural practice among students and young lawyers and the placement of a substantial number of students in these communities, many of which have gone on to practice.
Despite the success, there have also been some lessons learned along the way. Principal among these lessons is the need for careful planning, targeted recruitment and close engagement with both students and lawyers throughout the process, the high value of mentorship and retention planning and follow through as well as the importance of the tracking and collection of appropriate data points along the way. These lessons and others have been incorporated into planning and proposals for the REAL Initiative phase three which are currently under consideration by various funding partners.