For Women in Law By Women in Law

Guest Blogger, Kathleen Kinch, shares her perspective on leaving a big firm in the big city to open her own firm in a small community.

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I was catching up with Kim Jakeman last week and we chatted about the new Life in Law initiative. We got to talking about when I left Vancouver more than six years ago to start my own firm in Campbellford, Ontario. She thought that my perspectives may assist others considering a similar move and invited me to create a blog post. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity and hope that sharing my experience can help you.

My thoughts in brief:

1. Get hands-on practice management experience in your big firm practice.

2. Consider what is attracting you to a smaller centre.

3. Go with your gut.

4. Give back to your small community.

5. Choose your practice areas intelligently.

6. Collaborate with other practitioners.

7. Hang on to your hat…

My broader thoughts:

I spent the first eight years in practice at a large litigation firm in downtown Vancouver, and now for almost six years have been running a rural litigation practice in a community of 12,500 in eastern Ontario. The entire county law association is about the same size as my previous firm. We are the only litigators within a 45-minute drive in every direction, and our office is situated in the middle of three courthouses, so we serve a very large geographic area from a countryside setting. I own the firm with my husband, a paralegal, and we have grown from a law practice that was solely me in 2015 to two lawyers, two paralegals, and an administrator, in our own storefront office on the main drag through town. We have a diverse and busy civil litigation practice. Here is my advice about what to do to make a transition from a big firm practice to a small community shop, in seven steps.

1. While you are still at your big firm, make sure you are getting hands-on practice management experience. Are you actively involved in rainmaking, billing your clients and securing retainers? If you do flat-fee transactions, do you understand what costs are baked into the flat fee in addition to your own salary? Do you have a good handle on all of the components of overhead? Are there departments or working groups in your law firm that are particularly profitable, and if so, what staffing model and billing model do they use? Can those models translate to a stand-alone smaller firm? You may not have access to the full financials of your current firm if you are not a partner, but actively inquiring and informing yourself will help you evaluate if you do want to invest your career in your big firm for the long term as a partner after all, or to venture out on your own in a smaller community.

2. Consider what is attracting you to working in a smaller centre. For me, it was a return to my hometown roots and family, providing a necessary service in an under-served area, running a family business with my husband, lower overhead, and a much more affordable real estate market that allowed us to buy our own home and purchase our office building as well, all in the first four years of opening the firm. It felt very much like pursuing positives rather than escaping negatives – in the city, I was at a firm that I respected doing interesting work, with a good circle of friends and rewarding volunteer work, but when we really talked seriously about what we wanted our future to include, we found the small town offered more to us for less risk and with greater support. It made practical sense as well as emotional sense. When we made the transition, I found unanticipated rewards: I had a real sense of belonging and confidence that I hadn’t realized was lacking before. I found I loved my drives to court along country roads, listening to CBC. And we made friends with people who weren’t in the legal community and had strong entrepreneurial work ethics and plans for their future that matched closely to ours.

3. Go with your gut. At law school, I walked out of corporations class on the first day and dropped it to sign up for an independent study on a topic that really interested me and wasn’t included anywhere on the normal curriculum. I picked up the corporations knowledge later on the bar admissions course and through problem-based learning in individual files. I clearly remember the feeling that this class was all wrong for me and I needed to do something different. I have had numerous other experiences with clients, with judges, and in personal matters, where I knew intuitively what the right way was, and have only mis-stepped when I didn’t listen to my own innate response. When we started the firm, I followed my gut reactions strongly in hiring decisions, and actively recruited staff to join us who had no idea that they were the right fit for our law firm until I sought them out. When COVID hit, we had an incredibly strong team that adapted quickly to the crisis, maintained morale and flexibility as we made swift decisions to protect our clients and the firm, and in the middle of lockdown, rather than freezing our spending and furloughing everyone, we invested further in our staff and in our office infrastructure so we would be ready as the courts came back online. At first glance, many of our decisions may appear to run counter to conventional wisdom, but they have been rooted in shaping a meaningful and full future every time, which has translated to business stability and success.

4. Give back. The single best thing a professional can do in a small community is to serve that community outside of the business day, and not just with your legal skills. We don’t spend a lot on traditional advertising; instead, we put our marketing budget into sponsorships of local events (like the fall fair), non-profits (our local arts festival/centre), youth activities (sports teams) and fundraisers (the local hospice walk). We have volunteered a lot: on a non-profit board, the municipal heritage committee, as bus hosts for the maple syrup festival, as soccer coaches and kids club leaders, and I recently took part in our regional economic recovery task force. The skills that make you a good lawyer also make you a strong community leader and volunteer, and people know they can count on you, personally and professionally. We are also big promoters of “buy local”, using local vendors and service providers wherever possible. We use our social media to be positive and informational and to boost other local businesses. Moving to our small town, community service was one of the values that we wanted to live out in our real lives, and we have worked really hard to put that into practice in many ways.

5. Choose your practice areas intelligently. My big firm experience was in litigation and I was not interested in changing into a solicitor even though that is a normal way to practice in a small town. I had done civil litigation, professional regulation and family law; I have pursued all of those practice areas in my rural law firm, and added municipal law, dealing with zoning appeals on behalf of municipalities and individuals. Municipal law requires some special knowledge, but my administrative law background allowed me to pick it up quickly and planning law underwent massive changes in my first few years of practice here, so I was no further behind the experienced practitioners because we were all in the same boat navigating the new rules. The practice mix meant that our firm weathered the pandemic reasonably well; while areas of practice essentially went cold for a couple of months, other areas spiked, keeping the lights on even in the most serious period of lockdown.

6. Solo or small practice doesn’t mean you have to practice in isolation. When I opened up originally, I had an office space above an established solicitor’s practice, newly acquired by a young woman lawyer I had known in high school. My downstairs colleague generously shared her receptionist, photocopy lease, phone system and vendor list, and I compensated her at a reasonable rate for those things. We maintained separate corporations, but worked in this mutually beneficial association until we both outgrew our spaces and our firm moved on to its own building. Also, in my first year of rural practice I attended a law association event and encountered a new-to-practice family lawyer who was an employee at a larger small-city firm, expecting her first child and unsure about what would happen to her clients during her maternity leave. I offered to act as her agent during her leave, and we reached an arrangement where I went to her firm once a week to take care of her files, with each client signing an agency retainer letter and ethical walls established so I only dealt with my specific assigned files while at their firm. She ultimately did not return to that firm, striking out on her own instead in a different practice area, and I continued the arrangement on an “of-counsel” basis for a few years until my own practice got too busy to keep up the travel. Both of these arrangements provided financial stability, referrals, and help as needed from good solicitors whose expertise and experience were very different from mine. We were also all women in practice who were good at identifying a real “win-win” opportunity, and those positive relationships have outlasted the business arrangements between us.

7. Hold on to your hat and go for it! Talk to other small town professionals – chat with the local doctor, physiotherapist, accountant, realtor, insurance broker. Ask what they like about working there and living there. Ask if they think there is work for you there. Find your social setting and find your home. Talk to the economic development officer and the chamber of commerce – there may be local start-up grants that you could seek out. Be willing to learn the local lore, manners, and things that are celebrated – my plaque for best fruit pie in our perfect pie contest is truly a prized possession! Show you are proud to be there. Understand your strengths and skill set and be open to seeing the depth of knowledge in the experiences and skills of others. I have learned as much from my clients as I have offered to them – I can do things they can’t, and they can definitely do things I can’t. Be candid when you think something is cool, or interesting, or just new. Maintain your professional boundaries but be as open as possible outside of them. Look people in the eye and shake their hand firmly (when you can shake hands again). Find a hobby or a passion that isn’t law (or rediscover one from your pre-lawyer days). Most of all, remember that you aren’t just making a professional move. A small community practice is really the backbone of having a different kind of life. So plan for all of the parts of that life, not just the practice. If that sounds exciting to you, a transition to a country lawyer practice might really be for you.

About the Author

Kat Kinch is a graduate of UBC Law, clerked at the BC Supreme Court, and has been a litigator since 2006. In 2004 she was named as one of Maclean’s magazine’s Best and Brightest university students. She practises civil litigation, family law and municipal law at Kinch Eddie Litigation in the Central East region in Ontario, and in her spare time is a Master Gardener in training with a special interest in prairie planting and dry gardening.

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