A Road Less Travelled

UAlberta Law alumni find big opportunities in small centres

Sarah Kent - 14 August 2020

Jessica Andreassen, ‘20 JD, had an assured job waiting for her at the law firm that her grandfather established in 1954, in Camrose, AB, but besides that security, she sees a bright future for herself working in a small central Alberta city surrounded by farmland.

“Growing up in that firm, I could see how being a lawyer can help people with so many different issues,” says Andreassen, who started her articles at Andreassen Borth in June. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”

While Andreassen will become the third generation to provide legal services at the firm in Camrose, many small town firms are at risk of permanently closing without arrangements for new lawyers to take over the practice. This is a crisis for small centres that may be left without affordable or timely legal services in their community.

Yet the myth of the sleepy small town law firm has never been more inaccurate, say alumni of the University of Alberta Faculty of Law who are working in smaller communities from Camrose to Grande Prairie, Sylvan Lake to Squamish.

Legal practices in small centres offer lively, challenging and profitable career opportunities in addition to providing more work-life balance.

“People think small towns, small files,” says Laura MacLelland, UAlberta Law Career Services advisor. “That is just not the case.”

In small town firms, articling students and early career practitioners see greater autonomy working on files, hitting the ground running right out of law school, says Timothy Burnham, ‘06 LLB. This independence gives young lawyers important exposure at a critical point in their legal career.

“Everything that articling students were allowed to do, I did, and there are some things that you can do with leave of the court, which I sought leave of so I could do them too,” says Burnham. “There is a pretty steep learning curve, but I climbed up it as quick as I could.”

Within three years of graduating, Burnham became a partner at the firm where he started articling. Fourteen years after finishing law school, he has bought out the other partners at Gurevitch Burnham Law Office in Grande Prairie and is now the sole owner and managing partner.

Another career benefit is that prestigious associations and provincial organizations are always seeking representation outside of the major hubs, says Burnham. “You can be involved in ways that you didn’t think were possible and be rubbing shoulders with people you never thought you’d be working side by side with, especially early in your career.”

The Lifestyle

“Being based out of Squamish allows me to balance work and play. It’s great to finish work and still have time to go mountain biking in my backyard,” says Caitlin Hodgson, ‘17 JD, who practises at Race and Company LLP in Squamish, B.C. “It’s a vibrant, young community where most residents share a love of the outdoors.”

The embrace of a close community also makes practising in smaller centres more appealing to many UAlberta Law alumni.

“People tend to form closer relationships,” says Imran Bhutta, ‘15 JD, who practises at Rouillard Law in Sylvan Lake, AB.

“For me, to move to a smaller centre with a very different demographic was a challenge initially,” says Bhutta, who grew up in Pakistan and moved to the Greater Toronto Area in 2004. “You have to culturally adapt to a small town, in a sense, but if someone like me is able to immediately adapt, anyone can.”

The Small Town Fit

While some lawyers in rural communities specialize, the majority are generalists, able to offer their expertise on a variety of cases — everything from family law to corporate law to criminal law. It takes a wide knowledge base to be a jack of all trades and a willingness to jump in where needed.

Playing major roles in their communities, small town lawyers wear many different hats, serving as active members on boards, councils, political organizations and community associations. Lawyers’ advocacy and leadership skills become invaluable as they help guide the community they live in.

“You can have more of an impact in your community because everyone wants to know their lawyer,” says Burnham.

For practitioners in small towns, interpersonal skills determine whether you sink or swim, says Bruce Wakeham, director of Career Services at UAlberta Law. “Those people skills are not only for in the office but for getting out of the office and drumming up business,” says Wakeham.

The downside is that you’re always representing the profession. “There is the need to recognize the risk that any time you’re speaking, you’re speaking as the lawyer.”

The Qualifications

At UAlberta Law, fewer than 15 per cent of alumni article outside of major hubs like Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver or Toronto. Even fewer settle into small town practices.

While attracting and retaining lawyers is a challenge for rural law firms, they choose carefully, scouting for those who will relate well to their neighbours, says Pat Neil, the school’s Career Services officer. “They want people who are going to stay.”

Andreassen knew early on that she wanted to practise in Camrose, working alongside her father, James Harry Andreassen, ‘84 LLB, and aunt, Margaret Weir Andreassen, ‘81 LLB, who are both partners.

“I started working there when I was 14. It was my first job — I was the janitor,” she says. “I distinctly remember cleaning the lawyers’ coffee mugs at the end of the day, wanting to eventually be in one of the offices.”

For others, finding opportunities in smaller centres takes initiative since small town firms don’t always recruit the same way as big city practices. Formal job postings are rare, and searches are often student-led, says Neil.

“I would suggest going to the areas that you might want to live in. Call up a few lawyers and go out for coffee,” says Bhutta. “You have to be someone who is not afraid of being ‘out there.’ ”

Redefine Success

“Many students define success as being large law firms—Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton—in a big glass tower somewhere,” says Wakeham.

Yet to many law students and early career practitioners, big city practices are not what they ultimately want for their legal careers.

“Students say, ‘I don’t think I want a big firm long-term, but if I start there, I can do anything.’ There is a mindset you have to start in this one specific spot to have all these avenues open,” says MacLelland. “That is a major misconception”

“Define your success your way, rather than having your classmates define your success for you,” says Wakeham. “Everybody is going to fit somewhere, but not everyone is going to fit in the large firm and not everyone is going to fit in the small town sole practice.”

Jessica Andreassen, ‘20 JD

Articling Student, Andreassen Borth, Camrose, AB

Why: There are a lot of lifestyle benefits: a lower cost of living, no commute, an emphasis on community involvement and work-life balance, and learning opportunities directly from experienced, senior partners.

Toughest Challenge: You kind of have to hit the ground running and learn a lot about a wide range of practice areas in order to effectively serve clients in your community. I think that makes for a rewarding and exciting career, but it can be intimidating starting out — there’s definitely a lot to learn!

Best Experience: With a general practice, you’re able to help clients with such a wide range of issues and in different capacities. That client relationship aspect is really exciting to me.

Timothy J. Burnham, ‘06 LLB

Managing Partner of Gurevitch Burnham Law Office, Grande Prairie, AB

Why: I get to spend a lot of time with my family and be involved in other things in the community that have kept me busy without having to choose or sacrifice.

Toughest Challenge: It can be tricky to have access to the resources that some of the larger firms have. I have taken on an awful lot more administration. In a larger firm, you might offload all of that to someone else.

Best Experience: Regularly, you do work and then you see the actual impact in the community. You get to see clients come into the office when they are going through some difficult challenges or have an exciting opportunity … then you see them out in the community, and they are happy to see you and thankful for what we were able to do for them. It is very uplifting and gratifying to be able to have that kind of impact.

Caitlin Hodgson, ‘17 JD

Lawyer, Race & Company LLP, Squamish, B.C.

Why: My backyard offers so much to do: mountain biking, climbing, snowboarding, and hiking.

Toughest Challenge: My practice is solely civil litigation and the closest courthouse is in Vancouver. As a result, most steps in a file (discovery, chambers applications, trials) require me to commute to the city. This takes a couple hours each day, which in turn takes away from my ability to work on other files.

Best Experience: The people! I feel that working in a smaller community has allowed me to become deeply ingrained in my own community. I get the opportunity to meet and help people in Squamish. It’s not uncommon to run into these people outside work.

Imran A. Bhutta, ‘15 JD

Lawyer, Rouillard Law, Sylvan Lake, AB

Why: I did the “Red Deer Firm Hop” organized by the University of Alberta Career Services in 2014. This involved visiting six of the major law firms in Red Deer and spending an hour with each law firm. The experience definitely piqued my interest, and I ended up applying for and getting an article in central Alberta.

Toughest Challenge: There are certain specialized areas that do not find much of a market in the smaller centers. For example, a lot of immigration law, intellectual property law, and bankruptcy law related work is concentrated in the bigger centers. If you are interested in one of those areas, your choices may be limited in terms of available employment in the smaller centers.

Best Experience: I know most lawyers personally. It is not too small of a bar, but it is small enough that you get to know lawyers on a personal basis. This has been a fairly enriching experience.