Gabrielle and Beate McManus (pictured, centre) are rare for many reasons – not least because they run a successful mother-daughter family law firm in Victoria. Established in 1975 by Beate, then twenty-five, McManus & Co has operated for over forty years. It is now run by Beate’s daughter, Gabrielle McManus, a student in the College’s LLM (Applied Law). In this Happy Lawyer, Happy Life podcast recap, Insights explores the unique mother-daughter dynamic that has led to the firm’s longevity, stability and success.
Starting one of Victoria’s few female-led law firms in 1975 “took a lot of subterfuge”, according to Beate. Already a promising litigation lawyer with two secretaries, Beate at 24 found herself wanting more – and wanting it on her own terms.
“Why am I doing this for the boss? I can do better! I can work for myself!” said Beate.
Next thing she knew, Beate’s mother called her to lunch and had her sign a seven-year lease for an office in a shopping centre yet to be built.
“Once I was hooked for seven years, I couldn’t get out of it! I should have been eternally grateful and stayed in the job for twenty years minimum – women don’t get litigation jobs.”
Interestingly, Beate doesn’t consider herself a “natural lawyer.” However, faced with the sink-or-swim prospect of her own firm on her own terms, Beate played to her strengths.
“The law firm was located close to a migrant hostel. Migrants would come in with interpreters. I was a litigation lawyer – I’d say ‘I can fix it!’ and sue everything that moved. But it was a matter of doing so much more than law – you had to know bank managers and migrant officials.”
Even the male-dominated nature of the profession brought out Beate’s survival instincts.
“My father came in every day to do the books, and almost everybody thought he was the boss. All correspondence would be addressed to ‘Mr McManus’ – it was only when people spoke to me that they realised I was female. I’d go to Law Institute meetings; my male colleagues would mumble – ‘give my regards to Bertie, your boss’, and I’d say ‘yes, I will.’”
While Beate laughed away these experiences, her daughter Gabrielle is more circumspect. Indeed, she was not always sure she would follow her formidable mother into the family firm.
“I did my articles at the Victorian Government Solicitor’s office and had a fantastic experience there over four years. Then I put my hand up to do a secondment at the North Melbourne Legal Service. It was so satisfying to apply the law to everyday situations and get an immediate fix; to help someone on the day. In litigation, it’s a long wait before you get any resolution – sometimes years.”
Opportunity as much as circumstance led Gabrielle back to McManus & Co. With her father taken ill, Gabrielle stepped in to her mother’s role in the firm part-time, before progressing to a full-time leadership role.
“It coincided with me having my first child. You need that flexibility from your boss,” said Gabrielle, echoing an issue well known to many working mothers in law.
Indeed, law firm McManus & Co is in every sense a family affair.
“We work with the children of the people who were first our clients,” said Gabrielle, referring to the migrants her mother advised forty years ago. “Now we’re on to the third generation of migrants.”
“We just want to continue to build the brand and consolidate our forty year foundations,” said Gabrielle. “We’re known to practice in property, wills and estates, and family law. We’re keeping fresh and continuing to learn, but we’re also really happy with where we are. I want us to change in a way commensurate with the change in our community.”
As for the prevailing sexism that characterised Beate’s early years in McManus & Co, Beate feels the world has changed.
“Young males are now brought up in a totally different way. They respect women, and relate to women in a different way. There’s not that elitism that used to be around.”
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