Whilst this lawyer had been admitted for less than a year before co-founding a firm, his fresh take on the legal profession has resulted in a rewarding and successful career to date.
Jonathon Naef is a lawyer and co-founder at Canberra-based boutique Balance Family Law – and has also been a 30 Under 30 finalist in past years. Speaking recently on The Protégé Podcast, Mr Naef explained the importance of practising with kindness and how bringing a younger, fresh perspective to the table has helped his firm find success.
Mr Naef co-founded Balance Family Law at 23 years old with Perpetua Kish after being an admitted solicitor for only six months.
In terms of co-founding a firm so young, Mr Naef said one of the main challenges he experienced was imposter syndrome.
“All those questions that even now, three years into running Balance, I’m still only leading up to four years PQE. You sit there and think, do I really know enough to be in the position that I’m in? But you have to tell yourself that you are good enough, you wouldn’t be in that position if you weren’t, so keep going,” he said.
“But there definitely were challenges in dealing with other practitioners. There were people around who liked to voice that they thought that my involvement within the firm and being a leader of the firm and a co-founder and being so prominently displayed on websites and all those sorts of things, they did think that it was concerning. And there was a bit of trying to prove yourself that yes, I do deserve to be here in dealing with other professionals when it came to setting up the business.”
However, having a co-founder as supportive as Ms Kish has been useful in dealing with different issues, according to Mr Naef.
“You have all of those things, but yes, being at the head of the firm or one of the co-founders of the firm with Pepe was challenging. But it also, I guess in me, made me want to prove myself a little bit more, work that little bit harder to show people that yes, I do deserve to be here. I do know my shit. I know what I’m talking about,” he added.
“But when you’ve got someone who’s really supportive that you’re working with like Pepe and who, as I said, is invested in your success as much as they are in their own and in the business, then those things don’t seem to carry as much weight or matter as much. So, having that support network there has been the best thing throughout this process, because even though I am in this position young, I’m not there by myself. I’ve got someone else who’s there for the journey with me.”
In fact, being a younger solicitor and firm founder has also benefited Balance Family Law in a number of ways – both in terms of innovation and hybrid working practices.
“The more that people work within more traditional firms, the more that they become accustomed to the way that it’s been run, and it’s always been done this way, and this is how we work with clients, and this is the work that we do and all those sorts of things. So, when they get to that partnership level, they’re just keeping the same wheel turning,” Mr Naef explained.
“You do have people who get to that level and they do innovate and they want to change things and they are able to do that, and that’s great, but when you’ve got people who are more towards the early stages of their career, they’re not set in those ways as yet. They might have more ideas about how they think you can integrate technology into the practice to better serve clients, to be able to streamline systems and processes and services and make the client experience better, and at the same time, make the experience of being a lawyer better because the billable hours working 60, 80-hour weeks, isn’t sustainable. And I think that people just don’t want to do it anymore.”
There are a number of values Mr Naef and Ms Kish wanted to instil in the firm early on – one of which was kindness.
“Kindness is very important to the way that we practice and it’s also led to us, along with other practitioners, founding a group called The Kind Lawyers here in Canberra, which is with other lawyers and professionals who share a similar philosophy to us in that law doesn’t have to be adversarial and combative. Even if it’s litigation, you can approach it with kindness,” Mr Naef added.
“So, one of the things that’s become a lot more prominent in the last few years is focus on mental health of people in the workplace and the traditional models of having heaps of court matters, working lots of hours, forcing you to come into the office, all those sorts of things. There’s a lot of burnout of young, good lawyers who they get a few years in and they’re just like, ‘I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore,’ because again, they’re within that same wheel that’s kept turning for years and years and years about this is the way that things are always done.”
This “practice of kindness” emphasises the importance of looking after oneself as a lawyer, as well as looking after clients’ mental health – and particularly in family law, the people on the other side, too.
“So, approaching things from the very beginning as: we are not here to make things more difficult for you, we’re here whilst we work with one of you and we’re lawyers for one of you, our goal is to help both of you to finalise this so that you can move on and that you’re both going to be okay after this.
“And adopting that kind approach has helped all of our clients to date because, as I said at the top of the program, we’ve been able to settle every matter that we’ve had. We haven’t had to go to a final hearing in Balance at all, or pre-Balance for years beforehand as well,” Mr Naef concluded.
“So yeah, it just is really important to us that when we work, we adopt that approach, but also that we get out there and that we help other lawyers to see there is a kinder, more collaborative, in our opinion, better way to practice the law than what’s just been done for decades and centuries or however long it’s been around, because it just leads to burnout. People don’t want to do it anymore. And the really good people that you have in the profession end up leaving because it’s just not what they value and not in tune with their lifestyle.”
The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Jonathon Naef, click below: