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Counsel for the profession

News

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2011 85(1/2) LIJ, p.26

Encouraging lawyers to adapt to change and better look after themselves are the top priorities for new LIV president Caroline Counsel.

When Caroline Counsel became a lawyer it was initially going to be for only five years. More than two decades later, she has taken over the reins as LIV president.

The accredited family law specialist has found herself in a profession she loves “more than I thought I would”. And she owes that in no small part to the LIV, which she credits with “saving” her legal career.

It was the LIV that made her feel she was part of something bigger, that she would be supported by something bigger than her immediate firm.

“The LIV fills in where your firm lets you down, knowingly or unknowingly. It becomes your legal family and fosters a supportive network to build a career,” Ms Counsel said.

“The LIV introduced collaborative law to me and I would not have anything if it were not for the LIV. If there is one lawyer out there who gets assistance from one of our initiatives in 2011, then I will have achieved something.”

It is this desire to help others in the profession that has seen Ms Counsel adopt the mantra “Leave no lawyer behind” as the theme of her LIV presidential year.

“Leave no lawyer behind” is all about getting lawyers to think about prolonging their careers. To that end, she wants to help prepare them for looming changes to the profession, ensuring they understand the evolving needs of clients and technological demands, and assisting in the improvement of their health.

This year Ms Counsel will also continue advocating for a national profession, fighting for increases in federal and state legal aid funding, and helping develop the LIV reputation project and LIV reconciliation action plan.

The irony is that this passionate advocate of the profession once had a different passion driving her. For a while, she dreamed of treading the boards.

“In 1988 I had been in the law about five years after studying for five and I had a ticket to Europe and an audition for Neighbours,” she said.

“I thought if acting was going to be my thing it would work out, so I went to Europe [without pursuing the audition] for three months and when I returned I signed up for the National Theatre in St Kilda.

“But my passion was tempered by the idea of 1 per cent employment for actors at the end of my acting studies.”

Ms Counsel had begun university life as a Monash University arts student. However, her brother Julian Counsel convinced her to move into law. She graduated with an arts/law degree and has been in practice for over 25 years.

After graduation Ms Counsel worked for a firm based in suburban Ringwood, before her European holiday.

On her return she joined mid-tier commercial firm Coltman Wyatt & Anderson, which later merged with Price Brent, and she remained there for eight years.

In 1999 Ms Counsel established a specialist family law boutique practice – which would later become Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers. In recent years her firm has concentrated on collaborative law and other alternative dispute resolution techniques.

Ms Counsel believes many lawyers would like to see collaborative techniques made available in other areas of law, such as wills and estates and personal injury.

It was this collaborative approach to problem-solving – along with a panel discussion at the 2002 International Bar Association annual conference – that convinced her that lawyers needed to use the latest ideas, information and know-how to achieve long-term success and ensure no lawyer was left behind.

“There was a group of significant commercial clients who spoke to lawyers [at the conference] and they said: ‘Wake up guys, we don’t need you, we hate you’,” Ms Counsel recalled.

“‘We hate how much we have to spend on you. We don’t just mean the money but the time, energy and effort. You are only there when we have problems, but we want you at the development stages.’

“Once upon a time, lawyers were the guardians of legal knowledge. The world has changed. It now has the internet and clients have never before had access to so much information. Legal knowledge is no longer a forbidden fruit hanging high on a tree.

“We are problem-solvers and time-savers and we need to best package and differentiate our unique skills so that clients and the community most benefit from what it is we have to offer.”

Ms Counsel said lawyers must adapt quickly to changing technologies and client expectations and attitudes. Similarly, firms can no longer dictate the method of delivering information to clients.

Whether it is social media like Twitter or blogs, lawyers have to go to where the users are and really think about the content and delivery method of the message.

“I am a small firm and don’t have a huge margin but I need to invest in technology. At the moment clients still prefer emails, but we might end up tweeting or doing whatever comes along next,” she said.

In fact, Ms Counsel, who is the fifth female LIV president in its 152-year history, will become the first to utilise social media when she begins tweeting members (www.twitter.com/LIVPresident) and blogging (www.liv.asn.au/livpresblog) this month. (See also “Spreading the word”, on page 30 of this edition.)

While Ms Counsel will be working throughout this year to help practitioners keep healthy businesses, she will also be preaching the importance of keeping a healthy mind and body.

She wants lawyers to help each other and the profession as a whole to get better at handling stress and getting relevant health information out to those people who “would not be thinking the four glasses of wine they have at night is a problem”.

There are many techniques available to practitioners wanting to take some stress out of their lives. For Ms Counsel, it’s meditation.

“We have all heard the expression ‘your health is your wealth’ and without health your ability to cope with everyday demands, stresses and depression diminishes,” she said.

“If you want to be a lawyer for 30 or 40 years, how do you do that while staying healthy and sane?

“The cynical older generation will probably be thinking: ‘Well, I sucked it up’. The younger generation will be thinking: ‘Yeah, well I don’t want to end up like you and I am choosing a different way of being’.”

Ms Counsel will continue the LIV campaign for increased legal aid funding during the year. At the time of writing, the LIV had accepted Victoria Legal Aid’s funding offer for legal aid lawyers but believes further increases are necessary. And it has concerns about other elements of the remuneration package. (See “LIV lobbying leads to legal aid win”, on page 32 of this edition.)

Ms Counsel said clients should be entitled to have the lawyer of their choosing, but that choice was being whittled away because fewer experienced lawyers were doing legal aid due to a lack of profitability.

“Cheap justice is not good justice,” she said. “If you think where the community most comes into contact with the law it is family and crime, so the last thing anyone wants is delays, lack of proper representation and courts unable to handle cases in a timely and effective manner.”

Ms Counsel is also keen to work with the Law Council of Australia on national legal profession reforms.

On 9 December, federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland announced nearly $1.7 million to establish two legal regulators as part of the reforms. (See “National profession: proceed with caution”, on page 16 of this edition.)

Ms Counsel said the push towards a truly national profession and the LIV reputation project – designed to improve the public image of the LIV and profession in general – had created the ideal environment in which to discuss the public reputation and future of the profession.

“As a whole, we need to decide how best to advance the profession in the community,” Ms Counsel said.

“We need to keep telling good stories about ourselves. The way to get back respect in the community is to talk about the things that matter most, upholding human rights and democratic freedom and upholding the rule of law.

“You improve your standing in the community by standing in the community.”

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