Once you meet Spencer Keys, you will never think of a small town general practice as outdated or boring again. Sure, he takes on traditional business, real estate and estate planning files, but he is also a systems architect. Spencer loves to nerd out about tax law but loves using technology to design interactions between non-lawyers and processes even more.
This innovative and forward-thinking lawyer is not looking to start a legal tech empire in the big city. Spencer lives in the small community of Sechelt, B.C. and his remote community is the force that drives him to innovate.
After working in government relations in Ottawa for years at a job he loved, Spencer and his wife, Veronica, a teacher, wanted to move to where they could both have successful careers, so they moved to Spencer’s home province of B.C.. A new province meant a new plan. He loved advisory work so wanted to stay in that realm. He graduated from an accounting program but was glad to leave accounting behind when he got accepted into UBC’s law school.
During Spencer’s time at UBC and articling in Vancouver, he took trips to the Sunshine Coast – a short ferry ride away from the city. The Sunshine Coast is close to Vancouver but feels a world away. It is laid-back, surrounded by ocean and mountains. The District of Sechelt, one of the bigger communities there, is home to around 10,000 people. For the price of a 2-bedroom rental in Vancouver, he could get a house on a third of an acre in Sechelt. At that time, Spencer and Veronica were beginning to think about expanding their family and they thought that Sechelt might be the perfect place to raise a child. But switching between school districts is hard so the couple set a 10-year plan to make the community home.
Halfway through his articles, the BC Teachers Federation won the right to limit class sizes. That meant that there were suddenly too few teachers and Veronica could now easily switch districts. The combination of these events turned Spencer’s 10-year plan into a 10-month plan. Spencer started googling “lawyers in Sechelt” and initially thought the area was over-saturated. Undeterred, he called the only lawyer there with a website (this was 2017!), Lois Potter, and within the span of a 15-minute conversation was told that most of the lawyers in Sechelt were semi-retired, that she could use the help immediately, and that she would like to slow down and for him to take over her practice when she did.
He started working at the Lois Potter Law Office, now Charthouse Lawyers, the day of his bar call and 1.5 years later, took ownership of the firm.
Charthouse Law has been around for 35 years (under different names). Some of the staff have been there for 30 years and got to know their current clients as babies while working for their parents.
The firm’s tagline is “advisors for life” and Spencer feels lucky to guide community members through all stages of their lives, in personal and business matters.
Other than his relationships with clients, Spencer’s favourite part about running his firm is that he gets to design the business. He is passionate about access to justice in remote communities. Spencer believes that a way to address this problem is to make it as easy as possible for lawyers to open firms in remote areas. He hopes to create centralized systems, like centralized conveyancing and document preparation services, to make the process less complicated. The responsibility of starting a firm alone in a small community is daunting and discourages lawyers from doing it, even though they are desperately needed in these communities. Spencer doesn’t know if he has the answer to this problem, but he is excited to try it out. Even on his worst day, Spencer gets to play in a laboratory and try to figure out difficult problems that he thinks have led to a lack of access to justice. For him, that is highly motivating.
Creating new processes and using new technology takes time and money, but Spencer doesn’t shy away from risk. In business, there is a concept of the economic moat. A moat protects a castle from invaders and an economic moat protects companies from competitors. On the Sunshine Coast, which can only be accessed by ferry or boat from the mainland, Spencer is basically surrounded by an actual moat! He doesn’t worry about holding on to every dollar he makes and tries to capitalize by investing in new tools and strategies.
Spencer was never great at working for other people but has a talent for leading. He is happiest with his firm when he sees everyone there functioning as a team. One core value of Charthouse Law is that there are no heroes or lone wolves. No one goes off alone or takes on everything. Working as a team lets everyone have a more resilient lifestyle because they are interchangeable. If Spencer or his staff need to take a sick day, they can take time off without the practice falling apart.
Spencer has put a lot of work into figuring out exactly what kind of lawyer he wants to be. If you are trying to do the same, he recommends the book Lawyer Forward.
The book focuses on becoming a solutions expert focused on particular legal niches or a problem expert focused on particular client niches and how to join the two. For Spencer, success was found in becoming an expert on the community in which he lives in more so than an expert in an area of law.
There are many ways to customize your legal career. But if you don’t do it intentionally, you might find yourself moving from job to job and wondering why you still aren’t satisfied. Interrogate yourself before looking for your next job to find out what you really want in life, and build your career around that. It requires persistence and commitment, but it is worth the work. After Spencer decided he wanted to raise a family in Sechelt and work on the access to justice crisis, he made the move, had the child, took over the practice, and there was no going back.