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Why Kath Manby believes resolving conflict with empathy is imperative for family lawyers

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Kath Manby has always had a passion for family law. Since the very beginning of her legal career she has charted a path as an advocate for survivors of family violence, honing her legal skills by taking a collaborative approach with her clients. Kath’s practice, VM Family Law is one of the first firms in Queensland to focus solely on matters involving family and domestic violence, working alongside other family law professionals and domestic violence organisations to achieve favourable outcomes for her clients.

After being invited to present on Family Dispute Resolution in Family Violence Matters alongside other family law experts at the 2023 State of Family Law Webinar Series: Exploring Best Practice in Addressing Family Violence we spoke with Kath about what drives her work, why she believes empathy is crucial to working collaboratively with the other side, and how she uses FamilyProperty in her own practice instead of spreadsheets!

Tell us a little bit about your career in family law. What is your “why”?

My career started in the UK, after which I moved to Australia. Prior to commencing my law degree, I started in psychology, as I wanted to work with kids, but always knew my passion was in family law. When I began working as a lawyer in Australia, I worked for some small and larger firms, but then moved to work in Legal Aid Queensland’s, Violence Prevention and Women’s Advocacy team. Overall it was a natural transition for me in what I have wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids, that’s my greater ‘why’. My personal ‘why’ has always been about leaving a greater legacy for my own kids, showing my boys that women can do amazing things, and showing my daughter how strong and powerful women are.

What has been your most memorable matter to date?

There have been so many, though one matter in particular stands out for me. I was acting for Dad and there were three children who lived with Mum, and Dad came to see me because he was worried about Mum’s household, her partner, domestic violence and things of that nature. I worked with Dad for about a year and he kept saying ‘I don’t want to send the kids back’. However, orders were in place so all we could do was monitor the situation week by week. One day he called me and said ‘Such and such is happening, what do I do?’ I said, ‘’Now is the time you don’t send the kids back’ (Kath becomes visibly upset). And that night Mum’s partner murdered her, and had the kids been there he would likely have done the same to them.

It was such a powerful moment in my career because I realised I can really make a difference. I genuinely believe that we saved those kids’ lives that day through working together with Dad and making those decisions. Had we done that before this occasion he would have been on the fighting end of the contravention application, and the courts may have had a dim view of his actions because it was all just ‘feeling’, without evidence other than what happened that day. That’s the big matter that sticks out for me, though there are many, many other matters.

What has been the most rewarding and testing aspect of being a family lawyer?

I believe the role of the lawyer is to help make an improvement in our client’s lives, particularly in family law. It may be very different in commercial law or in other areas. But for me, it’s all about how do I make a difference in the lives of the people who cross my path? How do I make a difference in their children’s lives? And how do I make a difference to the other side as well? I believe it’s not all about ‘fight to the death’ but rather about how everybody can be happy with the outcome. The most rewarding part is when I can sit back and truly feel that everyone got a good outcome, including the children. The flip side of that is that it can be hard to get your client to agree to work collaboratively. Because if nobody wins, then the kids haven’t won, and that can be very difficult for everybody. Unfortunately, there can be lawyers on the other side who can be very litigious and I just don’t think there is a place for that in family law.

What do you think the most common challenge is for family law clients at the moment? What is the underlying theme?

The big thing for family law clients is that it can be so hard afford legal fees these days. We’ve got clients who have no access to phones, whether it’s because of financial abuse or they have no money to get help. It’s a massive challenge at the moment, with some of it definitely due to domestic violence. A fear of lawyers is also a problem. Some people have this fear of going to see a lawyer who is going to throw fuel on the fire (so to speak) when we’re actually here to help. And of course it is going to cost money. You don’t have a brain tumour and say, who’s the cheapest doctor I can find. But that’s how some people perceive lawyers and the work we do. There is a perception that lawyers all have five Mercedes in the garage, which we haven’t. The work we do is hard work. We need to be across all the legislation we need for our matters, as well as often being our client’s emotional support, which we are not trained in. The media also feeds this perception - what is said and shown on TV shows like Law & Order.

Did COVID-19 present your practice with any challenges? If so, what were they and how did you plan to overcome them?

The biggest challenge for me in terms of practice was how my team could function if we were all in separate locations. We’re quite a close team, so the fact we couldn’t see each other everyday was actually quite terrifying. And we obviously had challenges with meeting with our clients. Prior to Covid, we had a lot of clients who were victims of domestic violence who couldn’t do conference calls from home with us, or they couldn’t do it from work - we had to have the ability for them to come into the office. For them to speak with us face to face all of a sudden had become very, very difficult. There were many clients who spoke to us in five minute segments from their bathroom with the shower running. There were many different ways we tried to deal with it. I don’t think in many cases it entirely dealt with what our clients needed, we just did the best we could with what we had at the time.

Financial issues were also a challenge, both in terms of our clients paying, and also cash flow coming into the business. Based on the amount of private work coming, in it restricted the amount of pro-bono legal work I do, which had limited reach in that I was trying to ensure that those who needed help had access to it.

What technology do you use in your practice?

There is a bit of a segue from Covid times, because a lot of what we implemented then is still in use! We’ve always used FamilyProperty, I think that was one of the best decisions we’ve made to sign up to it - it’s a wonderful tool to use with clients. We had never used MS Teams or Zoom prior to Covid - we now use both fairly frequently. Facebook has also become a massive tool for me to be able to have conversations with people and get information out to people who need it - I have found this to be so useful to our clients. Since then, we have carried on using FamilyProperty, and of course our own manual booking system too.

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?

FamilyProperty makes things easier for your practice. I was always a big Excel spreadsheet user, and when younger lawyers would come in to work with me, they would more often than not look at my fancy spreadsheet and say ‘What is this? We don’t know how to use this”. So when we signed with FamilyProperty I likened it to my Excel spreadsheet on steroids. I especially like that I can’t accidently delete any formulas behind the scenes! It’s just wonderful if I’m doing a mediation in the boardroom and I’ve got FamilyProperty up on the big screen and clients can see it being used to model out different proposals and see the value in using it. The visual aspect of it is important for me to show clients what these proposals look like through the click of a button to bring up their balance sheet, and generate the application for consent orders, without having to use my terrible maths skills in getting everything to balance. This is absolutely the most revolutionary thing about FamilyProperty - I am definitely one of your raving fans.

What do you think everyone in family law can do better?

One of the things I struggle with sometimes is how aggressive family law can be. There are so many practitioners that stand at the bar table and say “We want this”. It’s so important to recognise it’s not your way or your matter, it’s about what your client wants and the instructions they have given you. Take your matters on with a level of empathy and understanding to be able to do your job well but recognise that at the end of the day, it’s not your matter. Don’t get aggressive and take on all of that emotion as this can become a real problem. However, many practitioners have gotten to that stage where we can pick up the phone and have a conversation about how we’re going to resolve (the issues) together. That doesn’t happen all the time which can be frustrating. We should be able to get to a point where we can use our skills to find a way collaboratively to have our clients reach agreement rather than make the situation worse.

What are you looking forward to in the next year, both personally and professionally?

Personally I’m looking forward to not working so much. I’m desperate for a senior lawyer to join me in the hope I don’t have to work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week (laughs)! I’d love to play more golf, and spend more time with my kids. Professionally, I’ve seen a bit of a transition in my personal brand in the last 12 months, and as a result I’m getting asked to do a lot more speaking and teaching which I thrive on. I love mentoring junior lawyers. I’d really like to see more of that type of work come my way. I was really excited to be asked to be involved in the 2023 State of Family Law Webinar Series. The Air Force has also just asked me to go and do some training, which is great. I definitely look forward to doing more of these types of events!

Kath Manby is the Principal Lawyer and Legal Practice Director at VM Family Law. Kath recently presented on Family Dispute Resolution in Family Violence Cases as part of Smokeball and FamilyProperty’s 2023 State of Family Law Webinar series now available to watch for free on-demand.

Interested in learning more about how FamilyProperty can help your law firm? Book an obligation-free demo with our friendly team today.

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