If there is one thing that Emma Maxwell is passionate about in her practice, it is how her work as a family lawyer utilises legal technology. Having set up her own law firm, Anchored Family Law after realising she wanted to work remotely full-time, Emma has built a unique, one-of-a-kind, subscription-based law practice which allows clients to access quality legal assistance within their financial reach.
We recently caught up with Emma and had a chat with her about her career in family law, her passion for technology, and how she uses FamilyProperty in her practice.
Tell us a little bit about your career in family law. What is your “why”? What led you to start Anchored Family Law?
I’ve been practising for about 16 years with the first half of my career being in class actions at Maurice Blackburn - it was not in family law. We moved regionally in the last few years while I was still at Maurice Blackburn and I commuted back and forth for a while, which I quickly realised became pretty impossible, so I started looking around locally and family law was one of the options I found was available to me. I started in a very rural practice practising in crime, family law, and litigation, but when I started in family law was when I realised how much I loved it. To be honest, I hadn’t had such a passion for the law before that - I was going through the motions but with family law I found that I loved it pretty much straight away. I’ve been practising family law now for about 10 years.
My ‘why’ is I love how accessible it is to clients. I went from a practice where we had thousands of clients with not a lot of day to day interaction with them, to being with clients on a one-to-one basis at one of the most difficult times in their lives. Up until recently when I opened my own firm I had a practice where I had a lot of clients with family violence, drug abuse issues…it was a very real life practice where I got into the nitty-gritty of people’s lives. I had a baby just before the pandemic hit and I went back to work after four months maternity leave - I was working remotely and I realised just how much I prefer remote practice. I’ve also gone from being a little bit afraid of some of my clients (working with a lot of legal aid clients) where I didn’t feel safe, to having people on screen where we are both relaxed - because they were in their house, and me because I knew my baby son was just down the hall. Being in a position where I would have to go back into the office or go out on my own I started to think about how I could structure a law firm that would tick all the boxes for me and for my clients, and that’s how I ended up starting Anchored Family Law.
What has been your most memorable matter to date?
Coming from a class-action litigation practice background, I came into family law as a senior associate so at the start, I didn’t think I had the skills you typically develop as a junior family lawyer early on in your career, which made me feel a bit apprehensive about how my skills had transitioned. I had a matter about five years ago where there was family violence, which had first returned in front of the family court with Judge Riethmuller, who is now a Division One Justice. I remember him being so happy with a document I had produced for this particular matter - the Notice of Risk court form - that he asked if he could use it to train other lawyers. When I got the chance to speak with him about it afterwards, we realised it was because of my training in a different area of the law that I was able to bring something different to family law. Pleading particulars and things like that made me realise my past experience was an asset that I’d brought into my practice as a family lawyer.
What has been the most rewarding and testing aspect of being a family lawyer?
My favourite part of family law is working with women who have suffered from family violence - in particular with women who aren’t aware they’ve been subjected to family violence at all. These clients come in and when I meet them early on they seem like a ‘shell’ - they are so worried about pushing their partners’ buttons or upsetting them. For those one or two years that I’m holding their hand as their lawyer, the change in these women as they go through the family law process is huge - they get confidence, they get motivation, and the ability to push back against their partners to say ‘this is what I’m entitled to’. That’s the most rewarding part of it for me.
What do you think the most common challenge is for family law clients at the moment? What is the underlying theme?
The economic environment at the moment with inflation I have found is really stressful for a lot of people, particularly as people make decisions they might not have made otherwise if they didn’t have that pressure - decisions that aren’t the best option for them. They may not fight for what they are entitled to as they may not think they can afford legal costs at the moment. That’s a big issue.
Did COVID-19 present your practice with any challenges? If so, what are they and how did you overcome them?
I was at a different firm during the pandemic where I set up this family outreach program as I thought there would be a lot of people trapped in their houses with their spouse and not being able to contact a lawyer without their spouse knowing. I got my firm to set up all these procedures and secret email addresses and then no one used them because they stayed put to see what was going to happen. In terms of how it's affected my own practice now, we run a little bit differently, we are not just a fixed fee firm but a subscription-based firm and I think we are the only ones doing it like that, so it makes us really affordable giving our clients a lot of certainty during tough times.
What do you think everyone involved in family law matters can do better?
I think sometimes as lawyers we can get stuck in the weeds of a matter and stop seeing the big picture. I’ve gotten into the habit of asking clients ‘what would they want if I could wave a magic wand’, as a way to try and keep these as our goals through the proceedings. I think everyone gets distracted by the petty things or the issues going on rather than staying on track with the one thing that would make it meaningful to the client.
You use FamilyProperty in your practice. What is it about FamilyProperty that makes your life easier? What features do you like the most?
The feature I use the most is the property dashboard in a variety of ways. Being able to have those real-time conversations with a client, for example if we adjust this, how is it going to look with actual numbers, rather than that moment of panic where you might have to do some maths and get it wrong because you are under pressure - this is where the value is.
It also gives me a checkpoint where I can look and get an overview of the details of my matters, for example what the address of the property is, or I can look and see where the mortgage is - all those things that make it seem like a cheat-sheet that shows a client that I am really on top of everything. The balance sheet is my favourite feature - it is invaluable for having that one-page view where I can see everything relating to a matter at a glance.
What other technology do you use in your business?
We are completely virtual so are completely reliant on technology. We use Zoom, so we record our meetings and then transcribe them with Otter AI which has made a huge difference in my life so I don’t have to take file notes. The whole practice runs through Smokeball, and Notion,and then on top of that we use other apps like Calendly and eBrief Ready. I love tech, so any tech that comes out I will look at and see if we can implement it.
Have you had a chance to use AI tools such as ChatGPT? What role do you see these AI tools playing in family law in the near future?
I had a play with ChatGPT mostly from the position of how we can use it with our social media and our marketing but also using it when I’m stuck - what is the simplest way to explain something to a client, ChatGPT is really useful for that. I am finding that often it’s wrong, but it is a really useful, dynamic resource that you can manipulate to how you need it. Many lawyers have had this gut reaction of panicking about it saying how bad it (using AI tools) will be, rather than looking at how we can use it.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year? Professionally and personally?
I am really looking forward to bringing on another lawyer. I have this real goal for the firm being able to hire other lawyer mums that can work really flexibly the way I do, around Australia. I would really love to see that happen this year.
Emma Maxwell is a Family Lawyer, and the Director of Anchored Family Law.
Visit https://anchoredfamilylaw.com.au/ to learn more.