Providing legal services across the country requires a commitment by the firm to operate offices and visiting services in regional areas. It also requires a commitment by our dedicated staff to overcome a number of challenges to ensure everyday people can access the legal system no matter where they live.
Our thriving Newcastle office is a case in point. It services a large area of rural and regional New South Wales and has close affiliations with the coal mining union and industries. The head of the Newcastle practice, Stuart Barnett, says a key issue faced by our regional offices is being able to attract and retain staff. This issue is a common challenge faced by other professional groups such as doctors and allied health professionals.
Stuart speaks at the Newcastle University Law School to encourage students to work at our regional offices – even if it’s only on a rotational basis – in the hope that a couple of them decide to settle in the area in the long term.
With a career spanning 25 years, Stuart is no stranger to life as a regional lawyer; constantly being on the road, late nights and staying in motel rooms away from his family. The majority of his clients come from union referrals in the mining industry and he says the distance to travel is becoming greater as companies venture further afield to dig up new mines for exploration.
‘As well as Newcastle, I service the Hunter Valley, Mudgee, Lithgow, Singleton, Muswellbrook and even up as far as Gunnedah and Narrabri,’ he says. ‘A two-day trip may involve about 20 hours of travel that begins with a wake up alarm at 5am. I’d see between 10 and 15 clients and make many phone calls using my hands-free on the way – although mobile coverage can be patchy out in the bush.’
Also in the Newcastle office is workers claims lawyer Caroline Grainger, who has been at Slater and Gordon since 2004. Having worked at the Slater and Gordon Lawyers Melbourne office for a number of years before transferring to a regional office, she is in a unique position to be able to compare the two experiences.
‘In the country travel takes a fair amount of time out of my day, which means I have to be more flexible with when and where I speak with clients,’ she says. ‘It’s no longer a matter of leaving the office to walk two blocks to attend a mediation or hearing and then being back at my desk five minutes after finishing the meeting. Travel time must now be factored in.’
Caroline travels to the Gosford office once a week to see clients, which is about a 1.5 hours’ drive each way from Newcastle. Even if she sees only one new client for that day, she says it’s important to make the effort to establish a rapport early on and make each client feel valued.
Now that she has begun seeing new clients in the Coffs Harbour region, she also travels to the northern NSW coastal town every three weeks, which is a five-hour commute by air. ‘I leave home a little after 4.30am to catch a small plane to Sydney and then get a connecting flight to Coffs Harbour,’ she says. ‘While there, I aim to see about four clients in a day as well as getting through a number of telephone appointments. I feel that especially in the initial stage of taking on files in Coffs Harbour, meeting clients face to-face is very important.’
Another challenge associated with the extensive travelling is adapting to different working environments, whether it be another Slater and Gordon office, a union office, a local golf club or motel.
‘For a young lawyer looking to get some experience in a regional office there is a great quality of life associated with working in the regions. We have a strong team here in Newcastle and we manage the workload well between us. I enjoy being able to live a 15-minute walk from work. And because the office is two blocks from the ocean, I can go for a swim after work and eat lunch by the beach.’
Caroline is accustomed to working in different surrounds since she joined the firm in 2004. She began working in the Melbourne office while completing her studies. After graduating as a lawyer in 2007 she joined the Motor Vehicle claims team in Melbourne and went on to do stints in Ballarat, Footscray and Sunshine.
She then took a 12-month leave of absence to work in the Northern Territory as a Delegate of the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner at the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission. The job took her all over the Northern Territory, including to remote indigenous communities where she conciliated discrimination complaints.
Once the year was over, she decided to explore a different part of Australia and investigated whether there were any positions open on the New South Wales or Queensland coast. And that’s how she found herself in the workers claims team at the Newcastle office.