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Redefining Family Law with Technology Innovation and Thought Leadership




2023 was the year Fiona Kirkman achieved big things. Not only did she undertake her most ambitious role to date as the Global Family Law Evangelist at Smokeball, but she was instrumental in bringing to life the hugely popular Smokeball and FamilyProperty 2023 State of Family Law Series: Exploring Best Practice in Managing Family Violence for the second year running. A national six-part webinar series involving 14 family law professionals and industry experts, Fiona worked tirelessly to produce and deliver the Series to over 1200 family law professionals. 


It has been her invaluable contributions within the space of family law, as well as her involvement in a spate of other projects and initiatives throughout the year that led to her being recently named the 2023 Thought Leader of the Year at the prestigious Lawyer’s Weekly Women in Law Awards in Melbourne this past November. 


As Co-Founder of expert family law system FamilyProperty, Fiona has been a champion of family law tech for much of her 20-year career, and has made it her mission to connect family law professionals with the right technology to empower them to more efficiently and accurately prepare, model, and document their family law matters. 


Fiona recently sat down with Karoline Godoy, Client Marketing Executive, to share her insights into how she thinks AI will revolutionise the practice of law, her top tips for implementing new technology into your law firm, and what she loves about being part of a dynamic and fast-growing family law community. 


Congratulations on recently being named the Lawyers’ Weekly 2023 Thought Leader of the Year! What does it mean to you to win this Award? 


Thank you, it is very exciting! The Thought Leader of the Year Award has come as a big surprise. It validates the work that I've been doing over the last 20 years in law, and the last 10 years in particular in mediation, of trying to make a difference in family law. I hope that it inspires others to innovate to improve the practice of family law. I see the Award not just for me but also for my techie husband and co-founder Tim (Kirkman), our wonderful FamilyProperty team, and the wider Smokeball team.


What is one achievement you are most proud of during the last 12 months?


This year we held our second State of Family Law Series as a six-part webinar series, co-hosted by Smokeball and FamilyProperty which saw over 1200 people register. The Series’ focus was on family violence which is a topic very close to my heart. With all the changes happening in family law one of the big topics is family law professionals undertaking family violence training. It was an amazing opportunity to collaborate with family violence experts to present on how to practise in this difficult area, and discuss ways on how to best assist victims, and manage perpetrators of family violence.


The second big achievement (if I can have a second one!) and one of my big goals was to expand FamilyProperty globally, which is now happening with our expansion into the US. Over the past year we have been working with the amazing Sara Hawes in Chicago (Smokeball US headquarters) to expand our product with Smokeball. 


Over December and January I travelled with Tim and our family to the USA and Canada and spent time in Chicago preparing to launch the product to Illinois family law attorneys. This has been one of our big product goals and I'm so pleased to see it coming to fruition!


As a family lawyer and FDR Practitioner, what inspired you to launch Family Property? What were some of the biggest wins and challenges launching and growing your legal startup?


I learned from very early on in my career that family law is very admin-intensive. It can be both time consuming and very costly for clients, as well as very stressful when they’re going through such a difficult time in their lives. There is a lot of repetition in the process of collecting information and documents for disclosure. Plus, when I was modelling out different proposals manually there is a high risk of errors in the calculations. My techie husband  would often say, ‘Where there's a lot of repetition, there's a lot of opportunity for automation.’ After numerous conversations with Tim around our kitchen table, and in close collaboration with our co-founder Patrick Parkinson, the brainchild behind FamilyProperty, we realised the need for a better way of doing family law. This realisation sparked our mission to integrate automation and technology in family law, marking the beginning of our innovative journey with FamilyProperty.


Working on FamilyProperty has of course been a long journey with lots of ups and downs, joys and challenges. Working as a couple in law and technology with Tim has been a real joy. We’ve worked well together and have really fed off the ideas that we’ve had together. We've also been blessed with some great mentors and board members, and it goes without saying that once Smokeball acquired FamilyProperty, we’ve also been super lucky to be part of the Smokeball journey. 


As far as challenges, a big one was starting the business as a couple. Tim and I were doing what is called ‘bootstrapping’ without an income and having to borrow off our mortgage to fund our start-up. The expenses associated with this restricted us from growth in the early days so having investors on board helped immensely, and then the Smokeball acquisition changed everything in being able to lean on their resources. 


A personal challenge has been the number of health issues I have had over the past five years with an autoimmune condition. I’ve definitely earned my frequent flyer points at the local hospital. When we first launched FamilyProperty I had a bout of meningitis and ended up in the ICU for a month; my doctors said I might be brain-dead and never work again. Going through that was tough, especially for my family. I’m a testament in that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Out of that experience, I became even more resilient, driven and determined.


How do you think technology will continue to revolutionise the practice of family law in the next five years?


Artificial intelligence is definitely changing the way we do things as family law professionals and it's set to change things even more over the next five years. Tim avidly follows the development of AI and its improvements, and personally it has helped me in my practise as a family law mediator, and my marketing work. What it can do to save you time is remarkable. I’ve contributed to an article for The College of Law where I discuss how AI and tech are positioned to automate a LOT of the admin tasks we engage in as lawyers.


I agree with the phrase: "AI won't replace lawyers any time soon, however, a lawyer using AI might!"

I'm currently working with our Smokeball Spark Great AI Debate speakers on the topic "AI is a threat to the legal profession" and learning about new AI legal products in the market.  

A lot is happening in the AI space right now and the technology is improving constantly and it's important that we keep informed about these changes. 


Some may have reservations about the learning curve involved in new technology. What advice do you have for lawyers looking to make the most of technology like FamilyProperty and Smokeball in their firms?


Implementing new technology requires change. As lawyers, we generally don’t like change. However, we should see change as an opportunity to improve the way we do things.  


Research shows that firms that do invest the time to integrate technology into their firms reap the benefits of that investment. In the long term the efficiencies you will gain by taking a tech first, client-centric approach will be seen in the revenue you make and in client satisfaction.


It’s important to have champions within and outside the firm that can help implement the technology. Your champions don't need to be the partner, it can be the paralegal or the junior lawyer who loves technology. If you’ve got questions, don’t be afraid to ask your training providers. For example, we have excellent Client Success Managers at FamilyProperty and Smokeball who you can lean on to help you get buy-in from your entire firm. They do this day-in and day-out and can help you get results. We also have a Community where you can connect with other firms that are using FamilyProperty and Smokeball and ask how they are using the platforms and how you might use them for your firm; talk to each other! 


You are also very passionate about creating community and have founded various online communities for family law professionals online. One of the latest projects you are involved in is the Australian Family Law Lounge (now at 300+ members!). Can you tell us about the Family Law Lounge and what you hope the community does / is for family law professionals.


The Australian Family Law Lounge is an online community that enables family law professionals to connect with each other, and keep up to date with the latest developments in family law. I’m very passionate about the education of the next generation of family lawyers and mediators. I love to provide updates and thought pieces to encourage people to learn more about family law and family violence etc and I love it when others post and respond to questions. It’s a great resource to connect with other professionals and help them grow in their family law experience. 


You are very passionate about mentoring. Best piece of advice you would give an emerging leader in family law?


I love mentoring others and mentor law students and mediators through my practice, Kirkman Family Law. I am also a regular presenter for Smokeball and other organisations.


My advice to family law professionals is to work together. The family is going through not only legal but financial and emotional issues. Collaborate with other professionals to achieve the best possible outcomes for families.

One last piece of advice is to be a life-long learner. Law school is just the beginning of your learning. Family law, mediation, and technology are constantly evolving and it’s important to keep learning and improving.


You have moved into the Global Family Law Evangelist role at Smokeball, can you tell us a bit more about your role and what this means to you?


My role is centered on connecting family law professionals with our innovative solutions at FamilyProperty and Smokeball. I am dedicated to fostering connections through a variety of channels including professional events, our vibrant Community, LinkedIn, and other platforms. My focus is on demonstrating the tangible benefits that our products offer to family law professionals, aiming to transform and elevate the efficiency of their firms. 


Over the past year I’ve travelled all over Australia speaking at various events which I have enjoyed immensely. I’m also going to be the Master of Ceremonies for the Law Lounge Stream at the upcoming 2024 Smokeball Spark Conference in Sydney which I am incredibly excited to be involved in. As part of Spark, I’m also involved in organising what we’re calling The Great AI Debate - Is AI a Threat to the Legal Profession? where we will discuss whether AI is a risk or a threat to the profession, which I’ve had great fun researching and pulling together!


Last question! Are you able to share what’s next for you both professionally and personally?


I am looking forward to a number of work-related events including Smokeball Spark, again running another State of Family Law Event and the National Family Law Conference in Perth later this year.


Recently I spent 6 weeks working and travelling in the USA and Canada. The trip was not only an amazing adventure but also drove home the importance of quality family time and keeping active. This year I am hoping to focus more on my wellbeing - staying healthy and enjoying quality time with the children. 

  

Watch this space (and my LinkedIn!) for other events and exciting things on the horizon!


 

Fiona Kirkman is the Global Family Law Evangelist at Smokeball. Connect with Fiona Kirkman on Facebook, and LinkedIn.


Our friends at Smokeball are holding their annual Smokeball Spark Conference on 23 February 2024! Whether you’re focused on growing your firm, future-proofing, technology integration, financial management or the latest trends, Smokeball Spark is the place you need to be to take your legal practice to the next level. Learn more about Smokeball Spark.


New to FamilyProperty? Contact us for your FREE Demo.




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