For Jennifer Hetherington, being a lawyer is what she does – not who she is. It’s an approach which has defined the success of her firm, Hetherington Family Law, and saw her recently named Best Sole Practitioner at the 2017 Australian Law Awards and then the Women in Law Awards. Insights spoke to Jennifer about her work, her awards, and how she balances the competing demands of work, volunteering and family.
“It was quite a shock to be a finalist, let alone win!” said Jennifer. “It is fantastic to know that the judges believe the things I considered important were also important to them. I think the award was a result of me doing things differently. I don’t follow the pack, and I am not content to do things the way we have always done them. There is a lot more to me than being a family lawyer – I volunteer at Women’s Legal Service and hold a board position at the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. I have just stepped down after serving 5 years as Chair of Mummy’s Wish, a charity supporting families when Mums are having cancer treatment.”
Jennifer pursued her FDRP (Family Dispute Resolution Practice) studies with the College of Law so she could add a mediation practice to her firm.
“Running my own business and studying was a challenge, but the online platform the College uses made it a lot easier than I had expected it to be. There is no way I could have undertaken my studies the old fashioned way. Getting to a campus for lectures each week whilst running a business and single parenting just would never have been possible.
“It was also fantastic to have lecturers and coaches who are actually doing the work – real world experience is what this course needed, not academia!”
Helping people reach a respectful, amicable resolution is the best part of her work.
“Divorce is tough. I see good people at their worst. I genuinely try to keep people out of court; I did not have a single case proceed to trial in the 2016-17 financial year because I resolved every one of them,” said Jennifer.
“The cases I find most satisfying are the separated couples who reach agreement using Collaborative Law. It is so different from traditional lawyering. It’s better for the separated couples, but it’s also better for the lawyers. You go home at the end of the day feeling completely different from the way you do after a day in Court.”
Jennifer also works closely with a colleague on pre-nuptial agreements for couples in love.
“We see ourselves as protectors of that relationship and work really hard to ensure we don’t create any conflict.”
The greatest challenge of her work is often other lawyers, mainly those who have not (yet) embraced non-court solutions.
“Lawyers can be unnecessarily and unhelpfully aggressive,” Jennifer said. “Aggression can destroy, paragraph by paragraph, a couple’s chance of having a good co-parenting relationship. If a client feels like the other parent is ripping them to pieces and not valuing their contribution, it’s hard for them to just compartmentalise that.”
Jennifer cautions lawyers against embarking too readily to launch their own firm – it’s tough work in a competitive market.
“I do worry that people might think it is ‘easy’ – it’s hard work. You have to be able to wear all the hats, not just be a good lawyer. Sometimes you spend more time on the business than in it,” Jennifer said.
“I was fortunate to have previously been a Partner and a Head of Department at two mid-tier firms which allowed me to learn a lot about running the business side of practice and develop a referral network. If you are coming in cold from employed solicitor to running a firm, you have a big learning curve. You can’t expect to learn all you need to know about running a legal business from a practice management course. Do your research, build your networks, talk to other lawyers about the software they use – do the groundwork before you get started.”
In terms of managing the competing demands on her time, Jennifer said it’s important to accept that it is impossible to have every part of your life in balance at all times.
“I think ‘work life balance’ is a lie designed to make us feel guilty about working hard!” said Jennifer. “How can you work hard on your business but be 100% present for your family and also take care of yourself? It is actually quite damaging to expect that of ourselves because when you can’t achieve it, you feel that you have failed somehow.”
Rather, Jennifer believes it is necessary to arrange your time in a way that works for you.
“My philosophy is more Work hard – Play hard. I have 50/50 care of my son. When he is with his Dad, I work longer hours, so I can do the school pick-ups and drop-offs in the other weeks. I cram a lot into the week I don’t have my son and avoid social or work commitments on the nights I have him to maximise our time together.”
Weekends are for recharging, with Sunday as a designated day of rest.
“Sundays involve running or walking, gardening, reading or sometimes just cuddles on the couch. No washing, no cleaning – just enjoying the day. Now I don’t get an anxious feeling on Sunday night about the week ahead. You need to be able to slow down.”
Her current lifestyle is very much a response to lessons learned from the first year her firm was open.
“It was all about the clients. I didn’t take good enough care of myself; I stopped making time to go to the gym, often skipped lunch, and my physical health suffered for it. Now I do my client work when I am mentally at my best – during daylight hours. I made a conscious decision to structure my work week differently and make time for myself. You are no good to your clients or your family if you aren’t in top health.”