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Caroline Counsel

05 April 2011

Name: Caroline Counsel
Position: Owner Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers, Accredited Family Law Specialists; President Law Institute of Victoria

Do barriers still exist to the progression of women in law firms? Absolutely. Men still retain the status quo as equity partners in firms despite women graduates exceeding that of men. Some firms have implemented flexible work practices and part time partnerships to better meet the need of women when they enter child-bearing years. There is a “thought” barrier which occurs as lawyers attain partnership that inhibits new models of doing business and accommodating women graduates in a way that enables them to stay in the profession. Many of them just leave. For the women who stay, it’s about skill building, making sure they understand that they have the skills – not just the law skills – but also the skills for handling difficult conversations with male bosses, including pointing out how inequitable the processes are for gaining equity.

Caroline Counsel’s surname couldn’t be more perfect for a lawyer. In fact, she wouldn’t swap it for anything less than $7million. It’s a figure she half-jokingly quoted her mother-in-law if she wanted Caroline to change it.

Such name change possibilities aside, Caroline is a family lawyer from a commercial law firm background who has become a true believer in the power of Collaborative Law. Her eponymously named firm has developed this ‘alternative dispute resolution’ aspect to assist clients resolve matters without having to go to court.

Caroline is also the President of the Law Institute of Victoria.

“Sometimes,” Caroline explains, “court is inevitable, especially when there is violence involved. However, in addition to the normal court procedures, we’ve developed Collaborative Law to help clients and their children minimise conflict when the relationship ends. There are better ways of resolving family law matters and Collaborative Law is one such better way.” 

Around 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, according to Caroline.

Her answer to why is the slightly baffling statement: “It’s that thing called love.” She goes on to explain observations made by ornithologists about the swans living on the lake at Albert Park near where she herself lives in Melbourne.

Supposedly, swans mate for life and yet they now know the females have a tendency to go off at nights with the bachelor swans, returning in the morning to their mates on the nest. The love-divorce equation, it seems, is about infidelity in all its forms.

In Caroline’s observation, women usually leave men and men are, more often than not, blindsided by the decision. The women, she says, are usually heard saying: “I can’t believe he can’t believe it’s happening. I’ve told him and told him it’s over.”

People she says get busy living: they forget to pay enough attention, they stop hearing and they don’t see what is going on. Relationships, she also admits, are hard work.

How it works

Employed in a commercial law firm with a mixed bag practice which then decided to specialize in family law, Caroline says she wasn’t at first interested in being a family lawyer but found she was quite good at it.

“I loved seeing the progression people make. Both the leaver and the left come to you totally shattered. They are in the grips of something that is beyond their ken, beyond their ability to manage on their own, distraught and with no way forward. It is piecing together that better way forward that I love and it’s what led me to Collaborative Law. We are specifically trained to help resolve conflict and to remove court from the equation.”

The practice model had its beginnings in the US in the 1980s and moved around the world. Caroline notes that it hasn’t as yet taken off in the Asia-Pacific but that is being worked on.

In Victoria an adapted model has been going for about 6 years and recently, national guidelines for collaborative practice were launched.

But success is not based in anecdote. “Measurements done by the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals show the ‘stickability’ of collaborative deals,” says Caroline.

“Court deals tend to fall apart or get altered by one party or another within a year to two years. Collaborative won deals stick because participants shape the deal they want. Instead of returning to court to argue out a new decision, the collaborative process brings a better initial outcome but also provides participants with sufficient skills to communicate with one another so that we (the lawyers) make ourselves redundant.

“Take the courts and you will find yourself lawyer dependent because you are trying to navigate a very complex system – the court system.”

Growing pains

Caroline grew up the penultimate child of five in a “very Catholic family”. Being one of 5 she believes her mother had limited time and energy, in addition to which when her younger sister was born prematurely, her mother was preoccupied with the struggle to keep her alive.

“Mum just sent me out in the backyard to play, and for a year I just rode around on a tricycle by myself. Why she didn’t put me into Kindy, I don’t know. What it did prepare me for was school. I was after human interaction in a big way. I got to primary school and went party, party. In a bizarre way she did me a favour. It’s made me one of those people with a passport to ‘any country’. I don’t have a best friend and I am the friend of many.”

Certainly the world of people and work are all encompassing, leading Caroline to commit and engage in the rigorous five-year process to become the Victorian Law Institute’s President.

She views the role as a real chance to help form policy, making suggestions to Government about how to better improve laws and the provision of legal services to the public.

“But it’s also about looking after my members,” says Caroline. “My platform, and believe me most of the guys don’t even bother working one up, is Leave No Lawyer Behind. It is about empowering lawyers to consider their mental and physical health. But, it’s also to think about issues relating to longevity in the profession and their relevance to the community.

“I have this incredible opportunity to meet people of influence and thinking in the community and to be able to better the community. I don’t think you should muck around with that. You have to know what you’re in for and what is important to you.”

3 achievements

Becoming the Law Institute of Victoria’s President

My marriage

Establishing my own practice. It’s also been my best financial decision because I am financially more viable and it gives you so much more flexibility in terms of how you want to run a practice.

3 passions

I love food and wine: I love the creativity that comes with people who make and create and grow stuff.

The theatre

Reading anything from the Stephanie Plumb series to Deepak Chopra

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