New Zealand Law Society - Carrots need to be bigger: Enticing young talent to the provinces

Carrots need to be bigger: Enticing young talent to the provinces

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LawTalk’s regular Focus On series has shone a light on the issues and the successes of legal fraternities in smaller centres around the country. And one issue that this particular writer has regularly come across while writing those articles is the difficulty in attracting lawyers – especially new and new-ish ones – to the provinces.

For example, Taupo lawyer Tom Mounsey told me it was something they had to adapt to.

“People with little or no family connection with the town can struggle here, and what we’ve found is that we bring in graduates and they do two or three years and then move on, perhaps to an overseas role.”

Similar in the south

It’s a similar situation in the South Island. Janet Copeland, a managing partner at the Invercargill-based Copeland Ashcroft Law and the New Zealand Law Society’s Southland branch President, says graduates have told her that coming to a new town and having to make new friends isn’t an easy proposition for those who have recently been admitted.

“The reality is that when you’re a graduate, you want to move to cities where all of your friends are going. In order to attract talent to smaller regions, you almost have to convince grads that the job will be worth leaving all of your friends behind for and moving to a foreign place where you probably won’t know anyone. This is a tough sale.”

And while she admits Invercargill isn’t viewed as a top spot, local firms are not doing enough to attract young talent.

“Invercargill is not seen as an attractive proposition. Part of the issue, in my view, is that some firms are not presenting themselves as attractive employment propositions. They don’t have clear career pathways, have no obvious succession opportunities and, perhaps, aren’t telling the story about the great variety and quality of work available.”

The Gisborne branch President, David Ure, has said it’s difficult to promote all the advantages of working in the city to young lawyers.

“It can take a while to convince people that a lifestyle in Gisborne is something to appreciate. It is easy for me, I have obviously made the decision, but I think the ability to get a wide range of work and live in a place where you can go home for lunch is something to be applauded.”

How the biggest city’s aiding a neighbour

But not all branches and regions are experiencing the same issues.

In fact, in that same article on Gisborne, young lawyer Steven Taylor said moving to Gisborne provided him with court opportunities he may otherwise not have got elsewhere.

Ohakune Carrot
Ohakune Carrot. Photo: Jane Treadwell-Hoye

And Waikato and Bay of Plenty, for example, appear to be attracting lawyers, particularly from Auckland.

“There are some lawyers who are coming down from Auckland to practise in Hamilton to staff the growth in business,” says Terry Singh, Vice-President of the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Law Society branch.

“One reason for that may be housing affordability as compared to Auckland. Rent is still high in Hamilton, but transport woes and rent prices are prohibitive in Auckland, so Hamilton gets the benefit of that. There are probably less in the way of corporate/public law opportunities on offer though.

“Tauranga is growing and has some capability. Outside of that, I am a little less certain. The smaller the centre the more generalised the practice. Opportunities would be more limited consistent with regions struggling.

“Certainly, for graduate lawyers, it’s easier to relocate a distance to a smaller town if they do not have child commitments or own their home.”

Mr Singh concedes that the situation isn’t as rosy for newly-admitted lawyers.

“There has been a slight increase in opportunities for graduates from Te Piringa – the University of Waikato Law School in Hamilton over the course of the last five years, but too many are still struggling to find that first employment opportunity in the law.”

It is also apparent that some more senior lawyers are either returning to the town/city they grew up in for family reasons, or want a change in scene.

That was the case for Bonny Daniell-Smith who works at family law specialists Daniell Associates in Taupo.

When she returned to New Zealand, after spells in Sydney and London, she was pregnant with her first child and an opportunity came up in the practice.

“My partner is a Gizzy boy, and we wanted to live somewhere small with reasonable house prices, a good lifestyle, all the normal things that we are lucky enough to be able to tap into. It was a no-brainer really. My partner, who is a project manager, has lived here before so he knew what it was like here.”

Working to get talent to the provinces

Kevin Callinicos, a partner at Willis Legal in Napier, admits succession is an issue but it is something the firm works hard to tackle.

“It’s like any business – you’ve got to be working at it all the time, you’ve got to have an eye to the future; succession is a big issue for us and getting good gender balance and diversity within the firm is a priority and we’re actively working on strategies there. It’s like any business, it just doesn’t happen, you have to work at it.”

Janet Copeland says feedback from young lawyers in Invercargill suggests that it is up to the firms to think of ways of enticing lawyers to their areas, and grasping these opportunities while latching on to the opportunities new technology offers.

“One way that firms in smaller regions can make an impact is to advertise widely and be more present at career days/expos/grad recruitment days at universities. The majority of the firms at these events are the big four and a few other large firms. Putting the province’s name out there and having someone from the region there talking about the experience of grads in the area and convincing other grads to join, I think could make a difference.

“I also think a major selling point these days is an attractive looking website/social media presence. An old school, hard to navigate, poorly designed website is instantly off-putting. Having interesting content, lots of photos to appear personable and professional is beneficial.

“Smaller and regional firms should 100% draw attention to the fact that graduates/junior lawyers will be given so much more exposure than they would expect. Smaller regional firms, I believe, have the capabilities to provide a lot of exposure so should advertise this as a selling point.”

Terry Singh believes the Law Society itself – and the branches in particular – should take the initiative in selling the provinces to graduates.

“There should be a Society-led push to ask firms and senior barristers to seriously consider the benefits of hiring more staff. It would allow better work/life balance for overworked partners and senior lawyers. The lawyers that I have spoken to have said the hiring of a young lawyer has been a great move and that they should have considered it earlier. It would require using branch knowledge, but a visit to the regions with ‘reason to hire’ meetings could yield positive results.”

David Ure says that, in the digital age, there’s little to stop companies and individuals from moving outside the cities and one large firm has already made the move to Gisborne.

“I think there is a change, one IT company is moving base and their 38 employees to Gisborne. They say they can operate from anywhere and there’s no barriers to where they are based. House prices have gone up recently but are still very competitive compared to Auckland and many other places.”

Pushing the boat out

If the tried and tested methods of recruitment are clearly not working, some initiatives might be required.

Step forward two firms, one in the North Island, the other in the South Island, which both offered the carrot of $25,000 towards a house deposit.

Nelson firm C & F Legal offered the incentive in 2016 for a lawyer of about four years’ experience and it had the desired effect, with the firm getting more applicants that it normally would for that kind of role, and also a lot of publicity.

C & F director Kathy Carr says, however, that there was still some negative response for the job which had a salary of up to $110,000.

“There was a lot of negative social media comment, to the effect of ‘I wouldn’t get out of bed for that sort of money’. This was disappointing, particularly as our benchmarking indicates that our salaries are very comparable, particularly when taking into account the cost of living.

“We continue to have considerable difficulty attracting the right experienced talent to Nelson, and we know that not only other lawyers in the region, but many other professions experience the same issue.”

As a response, Ms Carr says their experience is that sometimes overseas lawyers are a better bet than trying to extract New Zealand experienced lawyers.

“South Africans, in particular, seem to be very keen to get out of South Africa and are willing to go anywhere in New Zealand. They also have a reputation for working very hard. It is unfortunate that the process for them to requalify here is so cumbersome and lengthy.

“It is also a further issue for recruiting to the provinces, because most of them are likely to have to do some courses at university, which is very difficult to accommodate if you’re not in a university town. There may be some work that the Council of Legal Education together with the universities could do here together to make it more feasible for firms like ours to employ overseas qualified and experienced lawyers while they obtained the New Zealand qualifications – such as distance learning options.

“So our strategy at the moment is to try and recruit New Zealand graduates who may have some longevity, and looking at overseas applicants.”

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