COVID-19 presents fresh challenges and opportunities for family lawyers

By Jerome Doraisamy|26 March 2020

Despite an increasing bounty of challenges for practitioners in the family law space, it remains an exciting vocational path, argues one partner.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Coleman Greig principal and director Malcolm Gittoes-Caesar – who last year won the Family Law Partner category at the Partner of the Year Awards – said the challenges and difficulties of being a practitioner in this space are radically different this week to what they were last week (at which point in time, court changes and the ongoing Senate inquiry would have been more pressing concerns).

“Family law is an inherently challenging area, because of the emotion of it – dealing with real people and real problems. Changes to the law, expectations of clients, and now the challenge of working remotely, are always going to be there in one form or another,” he mused.

“That is the professional challenge – which gets better as you become more experienced, but it is really key to surround yourself with awesome people – a great team, and supporting fellow principals, which I am blessed to have.

“Personally, I am grateful for my wife and kids everyday, and I take steps to protect myself from the emotional drain – no working from home, no outside of hours, no mobile phone number for clients – it keeps that distance, which enables me to look after myself.”

One downside of being a senior family lawyer, Mr Gittoes-Caesar reflected, is the “toll” that the work takes.

“What I have learned over my 20 years of practise is that we have to look after ourselves. We can’t just be available 24/7 – to our staff or our clients. Family law is an area of law that can be all-consuming. Some time ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and I would be one of many,” he recounted.

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“I changed the way I worked because of it, surrounded myself with people that care about me, and asked for help. I would urge everyone – whether in family law or otherwise – to do the same, and then to have the confidence to talk about their experience. It is incumbent upon senior practitioners to destigmatise mental health challenges, so that our young lawyers now that it is ok to struggle, and to feel free to ask for help.”

That all said, there are numerous opportunities for family law practitioners at this juncture, Mr Gittoes-Caesar added.

“Now that we are all working remotely, ADR and technology are the two biggest opportunities that we have. Embracing different ways of being a family law will be crucial to our practices. Learning to manage a team remotely will be a key learning opportunity too,” he posited. 

“And, there will be an upswing in family law work once COVID-19 settles – the courts will be back to normal, matters will press on, and, regrettably, some lawyers will not have been in a position to service their clients during that time – so there is likely to be an influx of new work, that you have to be in a position to manage.”

Such shifts in the marketplace will “accelerate” the move away from more adversarial types of matters, he continued.

“It won’t spell the end of litigation, but I think it may bring about a change in the way that lawyers interact. The world is a tough place at the moment – I think lawyers will realise that it is incumbent upon us not to make it worse,” Mr Gittoes-Caesar noted.

“Parents will be struggling enormously through this, and people’s assets are fluctuating daily – they need certainty, and they need compassion. We are going to need to be better at de-escalating disputes, and finding people a way to work together into the future, rather than being at each other’s throats.”

Further – and looking further ahead – he said that family law will be an exciting vocational prospect for emerging leaders, “because of that change”.

“With all that is going on, I can’t tell you what the practice of family law is going to look like in two years. That means opportunities to help shape it, and decide what it is going to be. Family law requires a number of different skill sets, and the opportunities to be successful at it are going to be there – emerging leaders are just going to need to know where to look, and to think outside the box a bit,” he argued.

“I love leading a team in family law – we feel like a family (with its good and bad elements) but, what I do find in this area, is that we have each other’s backs. So, if young leaders are looking for challenging work, with people that need help, in a collegiate and warm environment with opportunities to grow as a lawyer and a person – then family law is ideal.”

COVID-19 presents fresh challenges and opportunities for family lawyers
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