A Northerly Change

Law by the seashore

When Peter Smith headed north for a sea change, he could not have predicted life would turn out the way it has.

“Where is Ocean Shores?” is not a question that I had ever thought to ask, nor was it necessary to speculate on the matter in the same way that it is important to know where Crescent Head, Thredbo or Pokolbin are.

So, in about 1990 when I quit the city for the hinterland behind Mullumbimby, I hardly noticed that Ocean Shores was also in Byron Shire, NSW. It was still not on the map.

Why Ocean Shores? Well, in the 1970s I worked for management consultants Kepner Tregoe in Australia and South-East Asia. In the early 1980s I worked for myself as an importer of Persian rugs and industrial electronic equipment and with Potter Partners, Morgan Grenfell and ANZ McCaughan in the securities industry.

In my spare time I passed the BAB examinations but remained engaged in the stock market until a little after the 1987 crash. Following that craziness, I swore never to work in an office again and drove Manly taxis for about six months before deciding to move north to try my hand as a modest property developer. It was perfect timing except for an unfortunate division of matrimonial assets, which left me needing to employ my legal training.

Inside A Regional Firm

I joined a newly opened office in Ocean Shores, a somewhat prosaic neighbour of Byron Bay whose streets even carry the names of poets. Ocean Shores’ cultural history began with Pat Boone, apparently with a Hand from Nugan! I have since purchased land and built a home here as well. The office was a branch of a firm from larger Murwillumbah further north: one solicitor, one secretary and mainly conveyancing. It was isolated from the other towns, other lawyers, head office and resources so desperately needed by a new practitioner. Since those first years, I have increased real billing three- or four-fold, have more computers, more desks, more staff, more archives: more of everything.What is Ocean Shores’ law? There seems to be a pattern to many of the sea changers: move north (or south as the case may be), buy property, perhaps a business, rediscover their true nature, separate, go through a property settlement, divorce, sell the property, transfer the business, recover, re-engage with romance, get a prenuptial or cohabitation agreement, buy more property … and you’d better get a will as well.

There is plenty of work in that selfperpetuating cycle. But less flippantly, there are property developers, planning matters, estate work and all the issues that people deal with in their day-to-day lives whether they live in the metropolis or the regions. At present, I have two full-time secretaries and a part-time administrator and about 90 square metres of floor space in the shopping centre. It would be very difficult to find larger premises in the area. They do not exist. Finding good quality legal secretaries has not proved difficult although getting staff trained in the Locus practice management software I use is difficult unless I send them to Brisbane to stay a few days. Otherwise Locus works quite well.

I do not have their document management module but have developed my own data source templates and a set of mail merge precedents for many of the documents in conveyancing, probate and leases that require the repeated use of the same data.

I use the internet for much of my research, including Lexis Nexis: I do not have a large paper library. Broadband line speed is typically around 1.24 Mbps and download speed 155 Kbps, probably four or five times slower than in a city.

Like many other firms, I have had a basic website for some time but have not taken the time nor had the inspiration to add additional content.

More recently, conveyancing, historically a bread-and-butter area, has fallen away to a shadow of its former self, but has been replaced by a few more failed partnerships, some debt stress matters and certainly more litigation.

Bottom Line

Is it an improvement over working in a city? Probably not!I work 55 hours per week, have demanding clients and a sense of urgency permeates most days. If not, I start to wonder why?

Fortunately, there are also wonderful, warm clients who appreciate the effort you put in and never quibble about their account. As a sole practitioner, there is a sense of isolation, with limited interaction with other lawyers beyond party/party communications, albeit cordial in most instances, and occasional CLE meetings. But distance is always a factor.

What is remarkable is that home is six minutes away, the beach about three, there are no traffic jams and NO traffic lights. Is there room for another lawyer in Ocean Shores?

Sorry, but two firms here more than adequately service the local clientele so you will have to find another town: I hear Crescent Head, Thredbo and Pokolbin are great places.
Peter A. Smith
Australian Law Management Journal