Solicitor Derek Buchanan thought he’d only do a 6-12 month stint at the Legal Aid office in Dubbo, but two-and-a-half years later and he still doesn’t want to leave.
Since he arrived in Dubbo in 2012, the lawyer has been offered a plethora of professional opportunities that he puts down to practising in regional Australian.
Buchanan graduated with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Wollongong in 2009, and subsequently secured a position in the Legal Aid NSW Career Development Programme for New Solicitors.
The two-year graduate programme saw him working in the Sydney head office - for one year in the criminal law division, followed by another year in the family law branch.
At the conclusion of the programme, Buchanan elected to return to criminal law. But rather than stay in Sydney, he decided to make the journey out to a regional office.
The solicitor went from working in the Legal Aid head office, with sizeable teams of criminal lawyers who specialise in particular jurisdictions (Legal Aid NSW employs around 1,000 staff, of which about 500 are lawyers), to the Dubbo office, and a team of four criminal lawyers.
But size aside, the difference between practising at a regional office and a big city office is stark, he told Australasian Lawyer.
“[In Dubbo] we enjoy a mixed practice…It brings a significant amount of job satisfaction and huge benefits in terms of career development. We have more familiarity with the judicial officers, the clients and the staff who work with different stakeholders.”
And although Buchanan can’t deny that in Sydney there is a larger pool of clients, he says that because he sees the same people more regularly out in the country, having a mixed criminal practice gives him greater opportunities to build and maintain longer-term relationships with them.
But the benefits of more diverse work and durable client relationships aren’t the only bonuses that the solicitor has noticed.
His decision to move has also paid off, almost instantly in fact, in regards to climbing the career ladder.
“In terms of work opportunities, in Sydney there are many more Legal Aid offices, but there are also many more candidates,” he says.
“My experience was that I was made permanent in the first year of coming to Dubbo, then promoted on a permanent basis within my second year – these are the sort of opportunities available to young professionals who are willing to leave big cities.”
Don’t get Buchanan wrong: It wasn’t an easy decision to move to the region, which is about 400 kilometres from the big lights of Sydney.
He says he’s lucky that he has a supportive partner, and the pair initially agreed to give it a go for 6-12 months.
“There was a clear leap of faith, but out we came and it’s been really good. Dubbo exceeds expectations, and the regions of Australia exceed expectations,” he says.
His partner has since commenced her Bachelor of Nursing degree at Charles Sturt University, and Buchanan says it’s an added bonus that Dubbo is one of the Australian regional towns with a university.
But he admits that the pair do feel the remoteness from time to time, and it’s become all the more important to keep in regular contact with friends and family.
Perhaps as a concession for the distance, the Dubbo and Wagga Wagga Legal Aid offices give staff five weeks annual leave rather than four, allowing them more opportunities to visit home or take a trip abroad.
Another potential downside to practising in the region, Buchanan concedes, is the exposure to fewer opponents and judicial officers, although he says this has positive spin offs too.
“It’s positive in the sense that you can build rapport and better predict outcomes [but] negative in the sense that you are less able to develop versatility when you’re exposed to fewer players.”
But suffice to say, Buchanan would recommend that any lawyer takes the chance to work in a regional Australian town, even if it’s just short-term.
“If anyone’s got their blinkers on and thinks that Sydney is the only way, they’re missing out on a great opportunity. Young lawyers would be well advised to think about it.
“It allows you to have a more holistic appreciation of Australia. I think it would really help to make anyone more well-rounded personally and professionally to come and live in the country for a while.”