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reflections by neal wood

From time to time I find myself reflecting on my work as a family lawyer. What am I doing well? What do I need to focus on improving? How do my clients feel about their experience during the time I am invited into their lives and what could I do differently?

I suppose most of the time my client relationships tend to follow a similar path. I speak to them on the phone after they have been provided with my details by a friend, professional advisor or someone I have assisted before. I will then stay with them until the end of their matter, whether that is after negotiating an agreement or supporting them through a difficult Court process.

Everyone is a bit different and some of my clients love that practical, down to earth advice and just want to talk about the business of getting their matter brought to an end as quickly and efficiently as possible. For them, it’s very much a commercial transaction and very outcomes focused. Others are deeply involved and need a lot of support in their personal journey from being in an intact relationship, through separation and then into the next phase of their lives, whether that is as a post-separation parent, securing their financial future from a property settlement or feeling safe in their own home without the fear of domestic violence and abuse. It’s about listening to them and finding out what they need and what’s important to them.

While I often will check in with my clients after the end of their matter, and indeed many will check in with me, occasionally I’ve come across a few people that have become friends rather than just a former client.

Recently I had occasion to share a morning paddle on Wivenhoe Dam with an inspiring former client. Heather’s story is unique to her but, from where I sit, it is rare to see someone move through a very difficult family law matter with such patience, good humour and robust sense of self. What I love about Heather’s story in particular is that in the two years since we formally finished her matter, we have regularly kept in contact and I have been able to continue to see her go from strength to strength in her pursuit of her fitness goals, adventure races and epic treks across parts of the Australian wilderness and overseas in her role as a tour leader and operator of her own business.

During a couple of hours of paddling across Wivenhoe Dam in the early morning sun, we found ourselves meandering across all manner of topics of conversation, including reflecting on Heather’s own experience of her family law matter when I was her solicitor. While I won’t share the personal details of that exchange with you here, it certainly led to some thought-provoking comments and a few good laughs as well.

What I will share with you from that conversation is my own reflection on what it is that I actually do in my work as a family lawyer. Unsurprisingly to some that know me, it has a distinctly maritime theme. In essence, helping someone through a separation is something akin to the role of a marine “pilot” invited aboard a ship to help navigate their way through a difficult waterway which would otherwise block their path and make their passage extremely hazardous if they were to go it alone.

A marine pilot does far more than just giving those in charge of the ship a map and a compass and telling them where to go and then stepping straight off. It involves actively communicating with the captain about the intended destination and how best to get there. The ship never belongs to the pilot yet during the time they are on board they actively take on responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of those who are relying on them to navigate their path. For those on the ship, they have rarely if ever passed through this way before and feel vulnerable by the unknown and overwhelmed by the narrow passage in front of them, which from the outside appears entirely blocked and littered with hazards. For the pilot, this is their comfort zone. They have spent years traversing this small part of the world, studying the maps, tides and currents and building a wealth of technical knowledge of the waterway.

They know from years of experience where the fixed channels and obstacles are and how to navigate within and around them safely. They know how to steer the ship and control the throttles to be able to efficiently move through the tight turns and adjust the water levels of the locks to move from one section to the next. By traversing this waterway daily they have almost up to the minute knowledge of the subtle contours that may be easily overlooked like the shifting sandbars and shoals that can change with the ebb and flow of the tides. At the end of the passage, the pilot disembarks the ship having cleared the difficult path largely unscathed (with perhaps a bit of paint rubbing off in those very close points towards the end where it was the hardest to get through) but with the hull intact and able to continue to open water and on to its intended destination.

I see my role in very much the same way. Calmly greeting those about to enter the difficult section ahead, coming on board to help them navigate through the unique twists and turns in their separation, and then stepping off once the obstacles have been passed. While that experience will always be their own, I would like to think I am leaving them in as good a position as possible to continue to their next destination in life wherever that may be.

My involvement may, in relative terms, only last for a short period of time, but the responsibility I take on during that time and the skill that I need to impart to ensure that passage goes smoothly, is exceptionally important to those that invite me into their lives in what is often a very difficult and unknown time.

To be honest I can’t say whether the lofty images and descriptions of distant waterways that I shared with Heather that morning were an accurate reflection of my work or were perhaps evidence of some greater subconscious desire to be exploring grand overseas destinations.

In either case, as we continued the steady beat of our paddle, Heather’s own reflection of her experience seemed to align, in part at least, with my own view of things, so perhaps it’s a bit of both.

I personally get a lot out of the work that I do and often think how difficult it is for clients to take that first step to reach out to a professional that they have never met before and ask me to be involved in what is a very personal matter for them. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly and it is catching up with people like Heather that make me really appreciate the positive impact I can have during the time that I am involved with them following their separation.

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