Family lawyer Jo Bragg knew working from home would involve adjustment, given the high contact nature of her clients. Working from home with two college and university age children and her husband had its challenges - but a home office helped. Insights spoke to Jo about life as a family lawyer working entirely from home, winning best graduating student in family law through the College of Law, and advice she would have for lawyers considering further study.
Establish routine early and stay engaged
Early on, Jo established a clear routine, scheduling short study sessions prior to and after work, alongside some lunchtime study sessions.
“I would then try and dedicate one day of a weekend for a solid block of study,” she said. “Engagement was also a key. I rarely missed a weekly conference or contributing to a discussion board. Hearing directly from the lecturer and interacting with other students helped to consolidate my learning.”
Her husband and children were enormously supportive throughout the process.
“It was a sacrifice for all of us,” said Jo. “My husband never complained about me needing to study and did nearly all the washing and dishes. We also decided before I started to hire a cleaner once a fortnight to take the pressure off. Thankfully for my kids, I kept cooking the evening meals!”
Being recognised as the best graduating student in family law was a surprise.
“I was really happy with the marks I had received, but I didn’t realise how well I had done until I received the phone call,” she said. “Perseverance, commitment and diligence all contributed to the results I achieved.”
Empathy drew her to family law
“I fell into family law,” said Jo, who worked in commercial and property law during her degree. Having been a property manager prior to law, she expected to practice in commercial law.
“Over the past seven years I have worked at two different small law firms practising across a number of areas of law,” she said.“I found myself with more and more clients requesting family law services. The commercial skills I had developed were useful in property settlement matters as I had a good grounding in companies and trust law, along with superannuation and tax law.
“Parenting matters were challenging but I found clients seeking empathy, which I was able to offer. I was aware, however, that my ability to gain skills and knowledge in family law was limited, being in a small firm,” she said. This led her to the College of Law.
“Starting the program gave me confidence as I had access to resources, mentors and training that would help me best assist my clients,” said Jo. “I still work in a small firm, undertaking a variety of work, approximately two-thirds of which is in family law or child protection matters. What has most attracted me is also what is most challenging about family law - helping people through one of the toughest periods in their lives.”
Being able to work on sample matters through her College studies was immensely instructive.
“Most days I would learn something that was directly relevant to my practice that would increase my proficiency in family law,” she said. This included completing actual documents required for court filing, alongside review of commentary and case law.
“Having the flexibility to study when and where it suited me while building relationships with students and lecturers were very much positive aspects of the course.”
Win/win is the way forward
Jo generally prefers to use negotiation and mediation to litigation, where she deems it safe and appropriate to do so.
“I hope to make the process a little less painful for clients whileremaining collegiate with other practitioners,” she said. “The mindset of ‘win/win’ may be the best way forward as opposed to the traditional “win/lose” model. I have a strong desire to continue to learn and hone my craft so that I can assist clients and the profession.”
This proved challenging as her family adjusted to the lockdowns that swept Australia.
Be clear about communication and boundaries
With her husband, a teacher, and two school age children studying from home , it was important that Jo remained clear about her boundaries. Like many lawyers, she used video conferencing and phone calls to connect with clients.
“These methods of contact are generally sufficient,” observed Jo.“It can, however, be difficult when communicating with high conflict clients and others with particular needs. This experience has altered my views about using these platforms going forward.”
“For example, I have a client that is out of the country; we’ve been having Zoom meetings instead of email, which has increased the level of communication.”
Another benefit from lockdown has been reduced time waiting in court.
“Whilst I may be ‘waiting’ in a virtual platform, I can easily continue with my other work until I ‘enter’ the courtroom,” explained Jo.“This has also ensured that if there are communications to be had with the other solicitor, it occurs well before our time in court.”
She has missed the opportunity to communicate with other practitioners in the courtroom and surrounding environment.
“The largest impact on clients has been in child safety matters,” said Jo. “In general, all face to face contact visits between parents and children under the guardianship of the Department have been cancelled, including many planning meetings. This has placed increased stress on an already vulnerable group of parents.”
“As lawyers and as a profession, we have an opportunity to take the technology, the skills and the lessons we have learnt throughout COVID-19 and apply them to make the family law system increasingly functional,” said Jo. “We should now stop and consider what’s worked well - and better - and ensure we continue to implement and use those practices.”
“We have seen how the profession as a whole was forced to make significant changes in a short period of time and that it could be done. That gives us hope that we can keep improving the system of family law in Australia and continue working towards a less adversarial system that helps move families through one of the toughest times of their lives.”