When Connor Carleton decided he was going to become a lawyer, he was fully intent on working at a Vancouver firm.
But after his second year of law school, Carleton landed an articling position at a Prince George firm through the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers (REAL) initiative.
Delivered by the Canadian Bar Association B.C. branch (CBABC) and funded by the Law Society of B.C., the CBABC and the B.C. Law Foundation, REAL places law students in firms based in cities and towns with less than 100,000 people and a greater than 500 person-to-lawyer ratio.
The idea is to give future lawyers a taste of what working in smaller communities can be like and if not for REAL, Carleton likely would be practicing in the big city rather than representing clients in Prince George.
What's more, Carleton went to high school in Prince George and took two years of criminology at College of New Caledonia before moving onto Simon Fraser University to complete that degree and then to University of Saskatchewan for law school.
In other words, Prince George would have lost yet another young person to the big city.
"I don't think people really consider the smaller places as the places of opportunity necessarily," Carleton said. "I guess it goes hand-in-hand with leaving a place for university.
"People look at it as striking out into the world and expanding and going to the big centres and doing the big things...it wasn't even a consideration for me to come back here until after the second year of law school."
The legal profession is facing a demographic shift. According to the Law Society, there are 1,245 practicing lawyers over age 65 in the province, a more than two-fold increase in 10 years, meaning the profession is getting older.
Figures specific to Prince George are not available but there are a notable number of local lawyers either close to or past retirement age.
On top of that is reluctance of many new lawyers to move out of the province's more populated areas.
There are over 7,700 lawyers in Metro Vancouver while Victoria accounts for another 960.
Outside of those two areas, Kelowna, Kamloops, Nanaimo and Prince George account for another 850 lawyers.
It could be worse - in Kitimat the ratio is one lawyer for every 4,500 residents and in Merritt it is one lawyer for every 2,400 residents - but Jason LeBlond, among the busier defence counsel at the courthouse these days, believes there's a shortage of lawyers, at least on the criminal side.
"I've been trying to recruit a lawyer or two and it's difficult for me to get people from places like Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto to come and move to Prince George," LeBlond said.
"They're usually accustomed to the big city, they want to remain there and there is less willingness to come to what I guess they call a rural place, which I'm not sure is fair to say."
Carolynne Burkholder-James can attest to the local demand for young legal help.
Once she has finished her third year of law at the University of Ottawa, she will be articling at Heather Sadler Jenkins starting in May next year.
A week after she applied for the position, she was called in for an interview and was told she had the job the next day.
In the bigger cities it's often a two-month process, she said.
"There isn't a huge influx of students wanting to come to Prince George even though it's an awesome place to live, obviously, so I had a pretty easy time," Burkholder-James said.
In Ontario, the situation has reached the point where Lakehead University in Thunder Bay has opened a new law school, with its first crop of students starting this September. But LeBlond is not so sure that step is needed here.
For one thing, Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops will graduate its first class of law students next year - 75 began the program in 2011 and they will be called to the bar in 2015. For another, establishing a law school is not something you do overnight.
"You have to have some pretty highly trained instructors to teach law," LeBlond said. "It's not like these instructors are everywhere."
CBABC past president Kerry Simmons holds the same opinion.
"I think that because we have such a recent new law school in Kamloops, it'll be a little while before there is any further consideration of another law school in B.C.," Simmons said.
But she believes undergraduate programs in legal studies and criminology at UNBC could help draw students back after they have completed their law degrees.
"They will have lived in the community completing their undergraduate degree, so they have a sense of what the weather is like, what the community is like, and they read the local newspaper and get an idea of the issues and they can decide 'you know what, I am coming back to northern B.C.,'" Simmons said.
UNBC vice-president of external relations Rob Van Adrichem said the idea of a law school has been broached.
"But I wouldn't say it's been the subject of the same kind of organized mobilization the way that medicine or engineering has been over the years," he said.
A course on business law is delivered at UNBC and van Adrichem said a legal studies designation of some kind has been talked about, be it a certificate, diploma or bachelors degree.
"It wouldn't be law but it would be a movement that way for the university and a way for regional people to at least get a toe into this area before then transferring somewhere else to really do law," van Adrichem said.