Opinion of a solicitor who opted to leave the city behind, that younger lawyers can enjoy a good lifestyle and a challenging practice away from the major centres

Graeme McKinstry’s Opinion article in June’s Journal gave thought-provoking views on the challenges facing smaller provincial firms. The need, he argues, to compete with smaller, more specialised units within the city or large provincial town firms will lead to pressures that most of the smaller provincial practice units will find it impossible to live with in the medium to long term. Graeme concedes that “impressive exceptions” will buck this general trend and that is undoubtedly true.

As ever, the key to being an “impressive exception” is the ability of any firm to attract talented, enthusiastic and committed people, within both the professional partnership and staff (increasingly including paralegals) and the secretarial and support staff. Achieving that leads to a virtuous circle of:

  • Having the ability to provide high quality (and often very specialised) client services…
  • Thereby achieving a reputation for excellence with both clients and the other professions that deliver work to us…
  • Leading to a strong business platform that allows grown-up remuneration and proper investment for the future within the firm…
  • Thus making the firm attractive to talented, enthusiastic and committed people.

Life “in the sticks” is moving on. Here, the Highlands and Islands are being transformed from the remote, sleepy perception of yesteryear to an exciting balance of dynamic successful businesses and high quality of life. Inverness is the fastest growing city in the UK, attracting firms from the bigger cities to open offices there. Lochaber justifiably is styled as the Outdoor Capital of the UK and attracts thousands of city professionals, including lawyers, to the likes of the Mountain Bike World Cup and Caledonian Challenge every year. Caithness offers an unparalleled quality and cost of life.

Increasingly, the larger city firms are recognising the advantages of being based within this burgeoning economy. Presenting, as this does, a competitive challenge to the traditional indigenous practices, the smaller provincial firms have a choice – to go on the front foot, investing in the innovation and expansion that is needed to be competitive, or to defend their patch from the back foot. Successful innovation will include:

  • Improving accessibility – increasingly clients need their advisers to be available 24/7.
  • Projecting a modern dynamic image – is a nameplate at the bottom of a high-street stair still the premises that clients expect?
  • Specialist training and accreditation – allowing the provincial firms to compete for the city firms’ work and not just defend their own business.

That choice will ultimately define which firms continue beyond the existing generation of partners, permitting succession within the firm that allows that existing generation to retire with proper value for a lifetime’s work. The future will undoubtedly see far fewer provincial firms as practices merge to create the bulk needed to compete, or sadly, as many well-kent businesses close their doors having reached the end of their natural business life with no other acceptable exit available to them.

Just over two years ago, I joined a growing number of solicitors in coming to the realisation that the “impressive exceptions” offer both lifestyle and professional opportunities every bit as rewarding as those on offer within the cities. Exchanging a financially beneficial but otherwise largely unrewarding city partnership for a Highland partnership that delivers financial reward and the lifestyle benefits that go with it, has been amongst the hardest but undoubtedly the best decision I have taken. Talented aspirational lawyers should not think that a move to the country has to mean a compromise between “lifestyle” and “career” – the “impressive exceptions” offer significant rewards for both. It is up to the provincial firms to provide the right conditions to get that message clearly across; their future success, and very often, their survival, will depend on it.

Here in the Highlands, and elsewhere throughout Scotland, the “impressive exceptions” are expanding, very progressive and financially successful practices with no limits to the business and clients they expect to service. We are also lucky enough to live in some of the safest regions of the UK, amongst the most spectacular land and seascapes, with opportunities for lifestyles second to none.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t go fishing every Friday…

Spark something inside you? It should!

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