As a woman practising in one of the most emotionally charged areas of law, Caroline Counsel has demonstrated empathy alongside professionalism and logic. She tells Stephanie Quine how she broke through the glass ceiling and made her own luck.
Caroline Counsel had never given much thought to the connection between herfamily name and what she does for a living.
Despite tolerating jokes from judges abouther name, having to "laugh convincingly" everytime as if she had never heard that one before, it was only when she was at the International Bar Association in Vancouver last year that she thought about it seriously.
"A couple of women from Africa stopped me and looked at my surname and one said, 'Do you realise that you are genetically pre-disposed todo this work?" recounts Counsel. Remarkably, the family name of Counsel comes from ancient tribal islands and is thought to have been a nickname for those who were wise and often gave advice to others.
Quite fitting, jokes Counsel, describing boisterous gatherings of the Counsel family and major tiffs between her four siblings, arising from the fact that Counsels are "naturally always right". But perhaps these family tiffs helped Counsel develop the conciliatory skills essential for being a successful family lawyer.
"Most people can tell in a heartbeat what I'm thinking. I don't have a poker face. I'll let people know, in no uncertain terms, if I've got a problem"
Conceding that she tends to be the peacemaker, Counsel says her family complains that she is sometimes an absentee in heated discussions. But Counsel is far from a fence sitter and does not suffer fools.
"Most people can tell in a heartbeat what I'm thinking. I don't have a poker face. I'll let people know, in no uncertain terms, if I've got a problem," she says.
A force to be reckoned with, Counsel became the president of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) on 1 January this year and has used the position to speak up on issues affecting the profession. In August, Counsel campaigned against mandatory sentencing plans for juveniles,slamming the Baillieu Government's proposed legislation as an attempt to buy votes and a failure to consider why crimes are committed in the first place.
A fiery commentator and advocate, this month Counsel went to London where she met with the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society of England and Wales to discuss justice impact statements and how to make governments more responsible and transparent when making laws. "I was very impressed by their whole concept," says Counsel.
"In England, whoever or whatever department wants to criminalise certain behaviour or change the criminal justice system must bear the burden of the financial knock-on effect. "Another issue of which Counsel has been a strong advocate is the advancement and retention of women in law. In September, the LIV hosted the conference Relaunch Your Career, aimed at assisting lawyers- especially women lawyers - to reenergise their career by considering alternatives.
"Slowly, the large firms are coming to grips with barriers for women but there are some who simply won't seize the opportunity to think differently," says Counsel. "Flexible or part-time partnerships are the only things that will keep women engaged in the upper echelons of law."
Perhaps part of her motivation to further the standing of women in the profession stems fromher own encounter with the glass ceiling.
"I suddenly looked at these guys and thought, 'No, no, no, no, no.
I've done ring-around-the-rosy with you blokes before. You've snaffled all the profits that I produce and you promise things like partnership and you never deliver"
For years Counsel worked as a non-equity partner at a mid-tier commercial firm in Melbourne. Long days, everyday - and sometimes on weekends - ensured exceptional performance figures.
Counsel says she "worked her socks off", yet a partnership position was never offered to her. When the firm merged, she was shown the door.
"The male lawyer at the merger firm saw my figures and how I was out-performing most of the commercial partners with only a part-time secretary. Basically, he panicked and said I was too big a threat," explains Counsel. The job interview that followed ended abruptly when Counsel was told she would only be paid 30 per cent of her base salary and that she "shouldn't have any problems" given the performance-based structure."
"I suddenly looked at these guys and thought, 'No, no, no, no, no. I've done ring-around-the-rosy with you blokes before.You've snaffled all the profits that I produce and you promise things like partnership and you never deliver.' And I just said, 'No. If I'm going to do this for you, why wouldn't I do this for myself?'" she recalls. And with that, in 1999 Counsel's family law boutique practice was born and later became known as Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers.
While Counsel acknowledges the loneliness and hard work involved in setting up a practice, she believes it is worth it, having been able to influence more of her own outcomes. "I look at women in the profession and I think, 'Why aren't more of you setting up your own practices?'" she says.
But Counsel admits that the LIV presidency, which takes up three quarters of her day, has negatively affected her practice this year and that staff have been lost due to her physical absence. However, one thing she has invested much of her time into throughout the year is collaborative law - an alternative dispute resolution model which emerged from the United States in the 1980s and has since spread around the world.
In Victoria an adapted model has been functioning for six years and in March this year, national guidelines for collaborative practice were released. Counsel's firm now uses the collaborative method to assist clients to resolve matters on their own terms and she says the benefits for families are invaluable.
Eighty per cent of all our new clients now self-select into the collaborative process...Lawyers are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge," she says.
Seeing the world from the client's perspective in the way that collaborative law requires, Counsel has become a powerful advocate for clients whilst working for the betterment of families as a whole. Noting how relationships between lovers, parents, siblings and children are complex and can often sour, Counsel - who has had suicidal clients and those who have murdered their children - says that not being able to see past a client's case makes lawyers lose the perspective and impartiality they are engaged to retain.
With over a third of marriages ending in divorce today, Counsel says society needs more "cradle-to-grave training" about relationship psychology.
"As a community we have these odd values," she says. "It's all about the wedding dress rather than life ever-after as a couple - and how you sustain that, and do you sustain it beyond the point whereby it's empty and devoid?"
A pillar of strength and reason for many relationships and for the profession itself, Counsel hasn't always been so resilient. Seven years ago she began meditating to combat stress, which was manifesting itself in eczema and insomnia.
Within two weeks her symptoms disappeared and Counsel has remained so dedicated to the practice that she had her meditation teacher speak to lawyers as part of the LIV's Leave No Lawyer Behind strategy this year.
The LIV now runs free psychological counselling for lawyers, as well as mindfulness courses, to help manage stress and build resilience.
Also helping to maintain Counsel's mental wellbeing is a "shack" on the river in Mansfield, two hours north-east of Melbourne. She and her husband can normally be found there on most weekends, relaxing with four neighbouring families.
"We collect the chooks' eggs. I love to forage and there's all sorts of wild apples and plums. I spend most of the weekend cooking," says Counsel.
Meeting her husband at age 36 and with a demanding career to juggle, Counsel's chance to have children passed her by. But being one of five children, and with plenty of nieces and nephews around, she's not overly concerned.
"I think we've probably done enough damage to the planet. Us Counsels have, more than enough, replaced ourselves," she says.
But perhaps the legal profession could do with a few more Counsels - those with the ability to see the world from another perspective, consider other possibilities and offer wise advice.
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