Updated: Apr 18
Melinda Winning almost didn’t become a family lawyer. Fast forward 21 years and she has created a name for herself as one of the profession’s most illustrious family lawyers for Australia’s only first-tier family law firm Barkus Doolan Winning, as recognised by Doyle’s Guide to the Australian Legal Market. She is also the Director of Women in Law and Business, a networking initiative of women supporting women in the legal and business professions.
We recently sat down with Melinda and spoke to her about what she loves most about family law, her tips for up-and-coming young lawyers, and how she uses FamilyProperty.
Tell us about your career in family law. What is your “why”? What led you to Barkus Doolan Winning?
Initially,I tried to get out of family law. I had a little bit of experience with it when I first started as a lawyer, but then I came into a very good mid-tier commercial firm into the family law section which was tiny. At the time, my bosses said ‘Look, we’ll rotate you into commercial litigation, tax, and insurance’, and I thought ‘Fabulous, here’s my way out of family law’, and then they never rotated me. So I went and worked for John Barkus 21 years ago, and I found out that I loved the combination of advocacy and client work. It was challenging to work with high-end matters which I loved.
As a family lawyer and partner of Barkus Doolan Winning, what is the most rewarding aspect of what you do? And what is the most testing aspect of practising family law?
I just said to one of my clients ‘If I can go out of my way to help someone, if I can come back early to do a mediation even though I’m on leave (at the time of this interview), I’m happy to do that. I love helping people and I also like the legal side. The variety of issues like tax, accounting, the parenting side, mental health, it crosses every single area. You also get to meet the most awesome, interesting people who are our clients. I don’t think I would do it if I didn’t love it.
The most testing aspect is the stress of everyone wanting you to do something, wanting you to fix a problem, which is common amongst all lawyers. Though in family law it’s intense because people are emotional and not at their best. So they want more from you. I find that sometimes it is difficult to manage and you have to have a certain personality to be able to do it.
What do you think the most common challenge is for family law clients at the moment? What is the underlying theme?
Post-COVID I think people have decided they want a happy life and a more amicable divorce. People are sick of fighting, everyone has been given a little bit of perspective. The underlying impact of COVID for everyone is that sometimes it's making matters a bit harder to manage in terms of emotions, and mental health. I think people are not managing as well as they used to.
We’ve had a massive spike in workload and numbers of new matters.The other big issue at the moment is the downward property market which is a challenge for people who are trying to offload real estate.
What do you think everyone involved in family law matters can do better?
I think many solicitors may benefit from a bit of collaborative training - not to do every matter collaboratively at all, but some lawyers may just not have the ability to pick up the phone and talk, and try to sort something out, and problem solve to help the family. They become aligned with their clients and that is problematic in family law.
It does come with experience to have the confidence to say ‘These are the problems, and this is how we solve them’. It’s changing and it's becoming a lot better, but there is still a way to go. Some clients are difficult, and some matters are really hard and there is just not the ability to do that, but I always say to my junior lawyers that it doesn’t hurt to be respectful or polite, even when you’re writing a really sharp letter. It doesn’t have to be rude or aggressive, it can just be matter-of-fact, polite, courteous and business-like. There’s an element of family law that creates more angst than is necessary. If everyone took that approach, matters would run quicker, smoother, and with less litigation. That would be my number one tip and what I tell my lawyers.
You use FamilyProperty in your practice. What is it about FamilyProperty that makes your life easier? What features do you like the most? What do you think is the best part of FamilyProperty for family lawyers?
I’m still new to it, but what I really like is the client inputting the data. In that initial consultation being able to have the dashboard, the balance sheet, the issues, the parenting functionality - it’s brilliant for that. In a mediation the other day I used the percentage slider, it’s brilliant in a mediation. Others were doing Excel spreadsheets and I was using FamilyProperty so we could see how much of that account, that house the parties could get, and I could do the percentages with the adjustment payments in two seconds. The biggest thing for me is the balance sheets, I find them really useful.
What advice would you have for lawyers looking to make the most of technology like Family Property in their firms? (E.g. Some may be concerned about the learning curve involved in new technology. How can lawyers get the buy-in of members of their firm when onboarding new technology?)
Going back to basics is key. When we brought in FamilyProperty we had a lot of existing matters whereas most of my new matters since are on there, so transitioning a lot of these existing matters into FamilyProperty is important so everyone is on board with the new technology. Having your PA across it is important too so they are up to speed on how you're working across your matters really helps too.
What other technology do you use in your business?
We use Big Hand Dictation, Zoom, Teams, and Law Docs.
You have a Women in Law and Business Conference in Noosa on 16-19 March 2023. Can you tell us a bit about this.
This initiative was the brainchild of Carly Middleton, Irene Morozov, and I, the three female partners at Barkus Doolan Winning at the time. We had this little network of women in law, business, and doctors. We meet all these women in our work, and often stay connected to them, that’s how we get a lot of our referrals but they’re also just awesome women. So we had this idea to organise something, get a few of these women in our network to speak.
It's about helping each other which is what we’ve always done. This was meant to launch in 2020 and everyone kept asking when it was going to happen after COVID, so I said we have to book it in March. The focus of the Conference is education, CLE, and learning from each other. Our speakers are still being confirmed but we have a few lined up including Rebekah Giles, Principal Director, Company (Giles), and Fiona Kirkman, CEO and Co-Founder, FamilyProperty. We want to make it so you can tick off all your CLE compulsory requirements. It’s not solely a family law conference but a lot of family lawyers are attending.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year? Professionally and personally?
This is a good question and a hard question! I am looking forward to getting the Women in Law and Business Conference up and running again. I love watching the business grow, and watching our young lawyers grow, and develop, that is my big thing for the year. I love the team. I’m looking forward to an even stronger team this year - we have a good time at the firm, we work so hard but we also enjoy it!
Visit www.womenlb.com.au to learn more.