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Overcoming daily operational issues for family lawyers

With over 30 years of experience in family law, Nicola Watts leverages her extensive expertise to offer insights and predictions on the future landscape of family law in 2024.

user iconGrace Robbie 20 June 2024 SME Law
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Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, Nicola Watts, the principal of O’Sullivan Davies, a family law firm in Western Australia, discussed the major trends she anticipates in family law this year, the opportunities for SME business owners, the challenges lawyers may face, and strategies for overcoming them.

Watts pointed out that the heavy dependence on the court system to deal with family issues is a concern not only within her jurisdiction but also nationwide across Australia.

“One of the major problems in family law that we have is that the court system, particularly in Western Australia, is a breaking point.


“It’s about nearly four years from when you file an application until when you have a trial and you get a judgment. That leads to clients becoming very agitated and in a process that takes way too long,” she said.

Her firm, O’Sullivan Davies, has taken practice steps to tackle this challenge by promoting the use of alternative dispute resolution among its clients. She firmly believes that other family law firms in Western Australia will follow suit and embrace this approach as a growing trend in the legal industry.

“I see alternatives to court as the way forward in family law, and we are determined to be at the front of that because people waiting and putting their lives on hold for four years is just unsustainable, and all you end up with is a whole bunch of really unhappy people, and unhappy clients don’t make your work a very good place to go.

“It’s been quite popular in Queensland and a bit in NSW, but it certainly hasn’t taken up in Western Australia,” she said.

Among the numerous obstacles that legal professionals face and must surmount, Watts highlighted the significance of maintaining a proactive stance and “keeping ahead” of these challenges.

She emphasised the importance and immense value of establishing connections with other law firms, including those that operate outside of one’s specific area of expertise, in order to exchange viewpoints on issues and keep up to date with the movements of other legal firms.

“We have a number of other firms that we consider that we work with. Some are family law firms, some are commercial firms, and we often meet with other lawyers around town.

“We discuss staff retention, work/life balance, what other people are doing because you don’t always constantly have to reinvent the wheel, and particularly when you’re in a smaller firm, we can’t try every new system that’s out there to try. We don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the money to do it,” she said.

She further said: “So looking to others, speaking to colleagues, and not necessarily just in West Australia, I’m on the family law section, so I’ve got colleagues all over Australia. I think that’s what you’ve got to do to keep on top of law practice these days. It’s not easy; it’s complicated with lots of different priorities and parts, but it’s great.”

In 2024, Watts anticipates technology will present remarkable opportunities for SME owners. She reflects on the significant advancements in technology that have occurred since she started her legal career, underlining its potential for SME firm owners.

“There’s so much happening out there. When I started, I didn’t have a computer, I didn’t have an email, I didn’t have a mobile phone,” she said.

However, while technology enhances accessibility, it also presents significant risks for lawyers, with Watts stressing: “It also puts the most amazing amount of pressure on people. Like, if you get something and the client hasn’t seen it in 20 minutes, they complain.”

To tackle this challenge, she emphasised the significance of lawyers making time for regular breaks throughout the year in order to mitigate the risk of burnout.

“I think the amount of stress that technology puts on our staff, you need to get them out, you need to make them go and have their holidays and their leave because it can be completely overwhelming,” she said.