What’s it like to practise law in Yellowknife?

By: September 20, 2016

Cold. Beautiful. And fulfilling.

Alan Denroche boarded a midnight flight. It was 1987, and the recent law grad of the University of Victoria was heading to Yellowknife to article for a sole practitioner who’d recently come to the university in search of a student. Denroche expected to return home after about three years and carry on with life in Victoria.

After all, did he know much about Yellowknife? “Not a clue,” he says. “I just thought, Well, nothing else is going to take me up here.” He worked on a few real estate and corporate files. Today, 29 years later, he’s doing pretty much the same work in the same place, now running his own three-lawyer firm, Denroche & Associates.

This test-the-waters approach is common in the city, says Sheila MacPherson, a senior partner at the Yellowknife office of Lawson Lundell LLP, a western firm with booming corporate and resource practices. “I’ve hired lots of lawyers who thought they were coming up for a short time, but make it their life.”

So, what is it about this city, nestled along the shore of Great Slave Lake, that makes them stay? For one thing, the relaxed lifestyle. Unlike in larger southern cities, a 10-minute commute to work is par for the course. So is leaving the office in time for 5:30-p.m. day-care pickup.

And, at the office, no two days are the same. “You could be in court doing a trial one day on one area of law, and then a mediation the next day in a totally different area,” says Sandra MacKenzie, an eighth- year associate at Lawson Lundell, who grew up in Oakville, Ont. In a city as small as Yellowknife (its population sits at 20,000) lawyers rarely practice in just one area — there’s simply not enough paying clients to sustain a hyper-specialist.

Yellowknife, on a mapAnother professional perk: because Yellowknife is the de facto legal headquarters of the North, its lawyers get to travel. “We do a tremendous amount of work in Nunavut, and in small communities like Inuvik and Hay River,” explains MacPherson. That means regular flights across the tundra.

It also means plenty of responsibility for lawyers at the outset of their careers. It’s a good thing, then, that the legal community is tight-knit — the city is home to only 165 lawyers and nine law firms. “Everybody knows each other,” says MacKenzie. “There’s a real sense of community. Most of the young lawyers in town play on a softball league.”

But the biggest reason lawyers are seduced by Yellowknife? The natural beauty. “If you like the outdoors, it absolutely spoils you,” says Denroche, who, as a twenty-something, fell hard for the fishing and gorgeous hiking trails. “You can do those things right outside your door,” MacKenzie adds.

While you’re at it, make sure to look up. “People come thousands of kilometres and spend thousands of dollars to see the northern lights,” says Denroche. On a clear winter night, you can even see the light show from the city.

“And the summer is amazing,” says MacKenzie. “It doesn’t get dark until close to midnight, so after work, you can kayak for hours.” Winter at the edge of the Arctic, though? Another story. Temperatures can reach –46°C without windchill, and in the depths of winter it’s light for only about four hours.

If you’re still ready to buy a plane ticket, then take note: the bar is small, and the job market can be pretty competitive. So to land an interview, you’ll need to stand out. “I always like to see a reason why someone wants to be here,” says MacPherson, who is partly responsible for hiring at Lawson Lundell’s six-lawyer Yellowknife office. “I want lawyers who are academically strong, but who will also enjoy what the North has to offer. That way, I know they’ll be comfortable in the long term.”

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