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Rural and regional small business owners in Victoria rarely turn to the legal profession for pro-active advice, instead relying on it as a reactive measure, a new report by Deakin University’s Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice has revealed.
Centre Research Fellow, Dr Lucinda Jordan, said the research, which examined the experiences of 207 small businesses operating in rural/regional Victoria and 68 rural/regional lawyers, revealed a lack of understanding by small businesses about the range of legal assistance and advice available, while regional law firms needed to be more innovative in the business services they provide.
The report is the first to examine the legal needs of rural and regional small business in Victoria and identifies a number of areas in which law firms must change if they are to adapt to the changing needs of regional small business.
“Over half of our small business participants responded that they rarely sought legal advice regarding their business affairs,” Dr Jordan said.
“Instead their use of lawyers was primarily reactive rather than preventative.
“Our findings suggest that the reasons for this relate to a lack of awareness by small business owners around what services and skills lawyers can provide, as well as a general lack of understanding as to recognising when a legal issue has actually arisen.
“Either way this gap in understanding limits the opportunities for law firms to actively add value to those businesses.”
Dr Jordan said the report also highlighted a generally positive attitude of regional small businesses when using law firms.
“Where small business used the services of a law firm, they indicated a high level of satisfaction,” she said.
The report however indicated concerns about the availability of legal services in some rural/regional areas.
“A lower level of satisfaction was identified with legal services in outer regional and remote areas compared with inner regional areas, particularly in the areas of the breadth of skills, services and availability of local legal practitioners.” Dr Jordan said.
Co-author and Director of the Centre Richard Coverdale said the report highlights the significant potential for rural/regional law firms to expand the scope of their services.
“Recent studies have raised concerns around the continuing viability of law firms in regional Australia yet our report shows there are unique opportunities for rural regional practitioners to firmly establish themselves as local specialists,” he said.
“Particularly with carbon trading, planning law, water trading, and succession planning presenting new areas of growth.
“Importantly, effective advice often requires a local understanding of the unique circumstances of a particular region or industry.
“This places regional law firms in a distinctive position to be able to assist rural regional small business to make the most of the commercial opportunities in these areas.”
Further information about the report and recommendations is available at the Centre website.