Attraction and Retention of Lawyers in Rural Manitoba

By Eric Epp

It is clear there are not enough lawyers practicing in rural and remote Manitoba. The attraction and retention of lawyers in rural and remote communities is increasingly becoming a deep issue of accessibility to justice. The majority of Manitobans, around 60%, reside in or around Winnipeg. Manitoba’s legal profession is not reflective of the population spread, with 90%of the bar practising in Winnipeg. According to the Law Society of Manitoba, attracting young lawyers to rural Manitoba has become a pressing issue.[1]

Access to justice is often thought of as an issue of affordability, the right to appear in court, and reforms to improve the justice process;[2] however, these often can’t even be resolved if there is no one to provide the legal services (regardless of the cost). Even if a lawyer is relatively nearby, there are a number of other issues that affect rural populations that are exacerbated by having access to only one or two lawyers including: difficulty in receiving specialised advice, transportation accessibility and costs, and conflicts of interest for representation.[3] Training more non-lawyer practitioners, establishing satellite offices, investing in virtual/telephone services, and prioritising self-help legal education are potential solutions.[4] Notwithstanding these solutions, we can’t overlook the necessity of attracting and retaining lawyers in rural and remote communities.[5]

One culprit to the problem of rural lawyer recruitment is the propensity of law schools to sell the dream of the big city law firm life. Big city firms recruit students heavily with the allure of an attractive lifestyle and high prestige value.[6] Law students are repeatedly and implicitly told that the best and brightest students will go in to practise in a large firm where they can advance their career by learning from the brightest minds. Rural law firms, which of course are smaller, often are not part of this conversation. This leads to an understandable perception from law students that the best career options lie solely within cities.[7]

Secondly, there is a perception that practising rurally means a limited income. Admittedly, there does not appear to be the sky-high earnings potential that may be available in a big city, but several stories show that for lawyers who desire a better work/life balance, rural law is great.[8]  The income is often easily sufficient and comparable to urban peers, the cost of living is lower, and meaningful work comes fast.[9] In fact, young lawyers who decide to practice rurally would quite likely acquire a full caseload quickly, in most any area of law besides a select few, and have far more autonomy than many starting out in an urban centre. The work exists, but bodies need to be there to do it.[10]

Of course, brilliant lawyers do choose to practise rurally/remotely; however, these are becoming fewer and more far between, seemingly limited to those who grew up rurally. Most law students tend to be from cities and understandably want to practise accordingly.[11] Therefore, as the rural bar eases into retirement, legal attraction and retention needs to be prioritised to prevent deeper rural decline.[12] Lawyers in smaller centres have a deep impact within the community they serve.[13] This impact on the community is important for promoting long-term viability of rural towns, which is crucially important even beyond issues of access to justice. With many lawyers in rural Canada approaching retirement, this impact may be more heavily felt soon.[14]

One of the most apparent ways to increase the presence of lawyers in rural Manitoba is to provide funding for rural firms to hire summer law students. This has been experimented with in British Columbia for a few years through the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers project (REAL). This led to a large increase in the number of lawyers who decided to stay practising rurally.[15] The establishment of an initiative similar to REAL would be able to provide an effective counter punch to the narrative that rural practice is a second-rate career early in a law student’s career. The Law Society of Manitoba and the University of Manitoba have offered a tuition reimbursement for remote students who return to practise in underserved communities, but it is clear this reimbursement is not doing enough.

The access to justice implications of a lack of rural practising lawyers seem clear. Without nearby legal professionals, many locals may be forced to look and travel further for legal advice. This is more expensive, less personal, and a discouragement to even seek out advice.[16] Clearly there is more work to be done.

[1] Zena Olijnyk, “Law Society of Manitoba will focus on Indigenous issues and access to justice: new president and VP”, (19 May 2022), online: Canadian Lawyer <> [].

[2] Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, “What is Access to Justice: Five Different Ways of Considering Access to Justice”, (Accessed 30 June 2022), online: Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre <> [].

[3] Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, “Rural and Remote Access to Justice”, (Accessed 30 June 2022), online (pdf): Rural and Remote Access to Justice Boldness Project <> [].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, “Rural and Remote Access to Justice: A Literature Review”, (Toronto: 15 November 2015) at 45, online (pdf): <> [] [Rural & Remote].

[6] Tonya Lambert, “Promoting the Practice of Law in Rural, Regional & Remote Communities”, (7 January 2020), online: LawNow <> [] [Promoting the Practice].

[7] Rural & Remote, supra note 5 at 32-33.

[8] Dean Jobb, “Where are you, Atticus Finch?” Canadian Business (10 May 2010) <> []; Jim Middlemiss, “Small communities struggle to pry lawyers from Canada’s big cities, despite promise of jobs”, National Post (25 January 2015) <> [] [Small Communities].

[9] Bryce Gardner, “Big Issues for Small Town Law”, (15 November 2020), online: Law and Innovation <> [] [Big Issues].

[10] Interview of Kelli Potter, Patersons LLP (10 August 2022) on the topic of practicing law in rural Manitoba.

[11] Promoting the Practice, supra note 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Big Issues, supra note 9.

[15] “REAL 2009-2013: Five Year Summary Report” (Accessed 4 July, 2022), online: Canadian Bar Association: British Columbia Branch<> [] at 5.

[16] Middlemiss, supra note 8.

The views and opinions expressed in the blogs are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.

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