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What Makes an Exceptional Family Lawyer?

By 14 June 2019General

It goes without saying, if you’re going through a separation you need to get an exceptional family lawyer.

One of my greatest frustrations as a practitioner is that there are solicitors practicing in family law that shouldn’t be; essentially because they don’t know enough, they’re not respected by their colleagues, or they lack insight in relation to the fact that the legality of separation is just one aspect of what is an emotional, financial and practical minefield. Many lawyers additionally lack a capacity to provide honest and direct advice to their clients, reality-checking and challenging a client’s initial instincts or behaviour where appropriate. There is also the rare practitioner that consciously, or unconsciously, can perpetuate the dispute with commercial drivers in mind, rather than being part of the solution for a couple and minimising legal cost.

The tough thing is that the clients who are with the less ideal lawyers referred to above rarely have anything to compare their experience to and, accordingly, don’t know that they’re not necessarily with the right lawyer until very late in the piece and when the damage is well and truly done.

I’m conscious in setting down a criteria for what constitutes an exceptional lawyer. I, by implication, hold myself and the lawyers at Best Wilson Buckley Family Law to these same high standards, and rightly so. I would be comfortable with any one of our lawyers being held to the standards that are set out herein. I am also quietly confident that each of our team are likely to be far harsher critics of their own ideals and contribution than anyone externally.

So what do I think it takes to be an exceptional family lawyer?

  1. A specialist understanding about how this area of law works in operation. This includes how the court approaches these matters, what the experts say about the needs of children from a developmental perspective and in the context of negotiating two households, and how to realistically achieve the most efficient division of resources from a financial perspective. In my view, you have to be on top of these areas of knowledge in order to achieve the most optimal outcome for a client.
  2. An understanding that aggression is not power, nor does it achieve the desired outcome in most circumstances. In many instances it is necessary to have a capacity to assertively and persuasively communicate your client’s position and desired outcome given the interests of the other party, but aggression more readily is an indication of weakness or self-doubt, manifest in bravado.
  3. The respect of the Court but also, importantly, the respect of your colleagues. If you have a reputation as knowing what you’re doing, and being honest about it, then the reality is you will carry greater weight in your dealings with other lawyers, which in turn means they’re more likely to encourage their clients to compromise where they might not otherwise on the basis of certain representations assumed by your lawyer. This is not about intimidation, nor popularity; this is about trust. This is about younger and less experienced lawyers being guided, appropriately so, by an honest, reasonable and knowledgeable family lawyer on the other side.
  4. A capacity to speak into a client’s “listening”. You understand what it takes to communicate, convey and shift your client having regard to their emotional state and their capacity to cognitively shift at a point in time. You have the capacity to move your client’s narrative from a place where they are viewing a particular situation in a light which is counterproductive to a place where they can have a different complexion on a situation and move forward more positively.
  5. The courage to be honest with your client from the outset of the matter. That is, you have the courage to give them a realistic expectation, to give them the bad news from the beginning and yet maintain trust and rapport in that context. Too many clients find themselves being told by a court for the first time the reality of their situation or the minimal nature of their entitlement at law, where they have spent a considerable amount of money fighting for more yet were never destined to achieve that; and understandably many are frustrated, confused, angry, broke and very disillusioned with their lawyer as a result.
  6. Agility and pragmatism. Exceptional lawyers appreciate the limitations of the system, they appreciate the nature of your former partner’s personality and what can reasonably be negotiated, and they adopt and provide you with the most practical advice possible. Their intention is to achieve the most optimal outcome in your personal circumstances having regard to a myriad of variables that they’ll take into account before offering you a view as to what you should do. They’ll go out on a limb and give you that opinion irrespective of the fact that there are no necessarily definitive rights or wrongs in the situation. They acknowledge where certainty cannot be given to you, but still give you the confidence of knowing, that in a world of confusion and unknowns they have your best interests and those of your children firmly in mind.
  7. An exceptional family lawyer will ultimately be worth their cost. I fully appreciate that excellent lawyers are often expensive, but I can think of a myriad of examples where an experienced and effective lawyer can bring a matter to a conclusion at an earlier time, for significantly less irrespective of the fact that their hourly rate may have been larger than another lawyer that initially appeared attractive.

It’s a genuine privilege to be permitted the opportunity to assume such an instrumental role for a client during such a vulnerable and difficult time. Given that privilege, it is essential that we hold ourselves and our colleagues to the highest of standards. Because it’s the right thing to do.

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