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Dark photo of a man standing alone looking at the northern lights

The northern advantage

Friday, January 22, 2021 @ 12:38 PM | By Nick Leeson


Nick Leeson %>
Nick Leeson
In addition to providing a great working environment, legal practice north of 60 is a great incubator for developing young lawyers looking to take on meaningful and impactful work and files early in their career. The bench isn’t deep enough to allow a new lawyer to spend the first handful of years in their career doing due diligence or carrying a senior lawyer’s briefcase to court. Up here, you close the deal and you run the trial yourself.

And the North is where lawyers can still be generalists — indeed, most good northerners are generalists by default. While the need to be well-versed in a variety of legal areas can seem daunting to a new graduate, it’s also an exciting opportunity for those who haven’t quite figured it all out yet, or who like the idea of constantly learning anew instead of perfecting the best way to make the same widget every day.

Another benefit of northern practice is that these growth opportunities are provided in the North’s unique, friendly and collaborative environment. Northern practice has a frontier aspect to it; you feel that the legal system and local community evolve together. The legal community has a similarly collaborative tenor — a legal body that is largely collegial, not needlessly adversarial and where sharp tactics are frowned upon rather than rewarded.

And I’ve witnessed young lawyers experience these advantages firsthand. I previously ran a mentorship program with the University of Victoria law school that provided law students with the opportunity of a co-op experience working for a four‑month term of their legal education in a legal department. As a testament to the north of 60 practice advantages, I worked with nearly a dozen students during my time running that program, many of whom returned to the North to commence their legal career after completing their law degree.

These opportunities are only growing as the access to justice crisis in remote communities across the country becomes more pronounced, with new lawyers increasingly staying in larger cities. I know how these issues impact the North all too well. I was previously the Canadian Bar Association’s legal aid liaison committee representative for all northern Canada.

And I’ve witnessed as law firms and private practitioners across the North are becoming increasingly rare — with existing offices either shutting down or being bought by larger firms in regional centres, who then send a lawyer to the North for a few days every month or as files and projects require. This fly-in, fly-out model doesn’t work well for other industries, and the legal profession is no different. One result is that the access to justice crisis spills over into gaps in other areas of the community that lawyers traditionally fulfil — serving on boards, political councils and volunteering in various organizations, from community leagues to local non-profits. The absence of local lawyers is felt far beyond the walls of any courtroom.

Moving north of summer

Young lawyers disillusioned with the profession or struggling to find jobs and opportunities that check all the boxes for a meaningful and satisfying career, need only look north. That’s not to say coming north doesn’t have its unique challenges.

Friends and family are thousands of kilometres away, and mail never seems to arrive on time, to say nothing of the minus-50 winter chill. Still, its charms are unparalleled — the midnight sun, northern lights and a chance to experience some of the last untouched wilderness.

Among the biggest highlights in my career since moving north has been watching other young legal careers unfold, and an up-and-coming cohort of community-minded lawyers make a positive difference. Those seeking to do good work in communities that remain small enough to retain the word’s true meaning. This fills me with optimism for the future, and I never hesitate to take the time to highlight the benefits of northern living and remote practice opportunities for the strong cohort of civic-minded lawyers I see following the path to the practice of law north of 60.

This is the second half of a two-part series. Part one: Practising law north of 60: Path of a northern lawyer

Nick Leeson is an associate with OKT LLP, a law firm located in Toronto and Yellowknife. He is based out of OKT’s Yellowknife office, representing Indigenous clients and interests from coast to coast to coast.

Photo credit / Overearth ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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