Being a family lawyer is a tough gig, especially when you factor the large role family violence plays in relationship breakdowns. Monica Blizzard is a champion of family law and a strong advocate against family violence. Here we chat with her about the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes tragic aspects of being a family lawyer.
Jo Corrigan: When did you first know you wanted to be a lawyer?
Monica Blizzard: I was very young when I first had the thought of being a lawyer, and I enthusiastically pursued this through my secondary school work experience program by working with various barristers, and attending Court with them to watch them run cases. I found the entire court process to be exhilarating and I was immediately captivated by the theatre of the court process.
JC: What led you to go into family law?
MB: My primary motivation with regard to a career in law was to work closely with people and to provide some level of assistance to them. I also wanted the challenge of litigation, but didn’t necessarily want to be a barrister. This left me with two options, criminal law or family law. Family law was just a perfect fit for me, as I felt very strongly that I could not act for a client who I believed may be guilty, and criminal law presented many scenarios in which that might occur. Family law is somewhat different insofar as you aren’t always dealing with black and white fact scenarios, but more shades of grey. I did work experience in a boutique family law practice towards the end of my law degree and it was for me a “light bulb” moment that I was meant to be working in this area of law. And I quite literally have never looked back since.
JC: Tell us about the best parts of your job? Are there any particular highlights that stand out?
MB: The challenges of family law, often mirror the highlights of my role. Every case is different and no two clients are the same. I love that my work provides me with variety. A family law matter can take me to the Family Court, the Federal Circuit Court, the County Court or the Magistrates Court. I love being involved in the litigation process, but at the same time I am also a trained mediator and collaborative lawyer, so there are many cases in which we avoid litigation altogether and I enjoy that just as much. The best part, for me, is the relationship that develops with the client over the course of a case, and the feeling of satisfaction when you are able to achieve a good result and they can move forward in their life. I often develop a close relationship with a client as a result of this, and there are many that I still remain in touch with even though their cases ended some time ago.
JC: What about the harder aspects of your job?
MB: Because of the nature of family law, I am often meeting clients at their worst. They can also present with mental health issues and sometimes drug or alcohol dependencies. The majority of our cases otherwise involve some aspect of family violence, regardless of their financial status, which can create its own set of unique challenges. There have been a number of cases that have affected me deeply. In one such case, my client was murdered by their partner following separation. I had another case, where a young child was abducted by one parent and was missing for several weeks. I have otherwise had cases where clients have suffered a breakdown from the stress and the separation and the litigation that ensued. These cases were incredibly difficult both professionally and personally, but thankfully such cases are rare.
JC: Being a female in what has always been a largely male dominated space – would you share us what that is like?
MB: Throughout my 20 career in family law I have had the opportunity with some amazing and talented lawyers. But having worked in both boutique and larger firms, it became apparent to me that succeeding as a female in a law firm is a challenge.
Typically, the biggest challenge is having a family, and it was my experience overall that men in the profession are often more supportive of this than women.
I have wanted to, and feel that I finally have, assisted to create a work environment where work flexibility is an option, and flexible work practices are not only allowed, but encouraged.
JC: What effect has becoming a mother had on your career?
MB: I became a mother for the first time in 2012. After having only six months maternity leave, this was my first experience of how difficult it is to work in a firm where work/life balance, and work flexibility, was not encouraged or facilitated. This lead to me ultimately leaving the firm in late 2012. I then became pregnant again, unexpectedly, at my next firm. After the birth of my second child in 2014, I was only able to take three months maternity leave, which was certainly a challenge both personally and professionally.
Since that time, I struggled to balance my personal life and the needs of my two very young children, until I commenced working at KHQ. This was the first firm that I had experienced which actively encouraged work life balance and work flexibility, as part of the firm culture. I have been able to work my own hours during this time and have been able to work from home as needed, which is essential with young children.
Having a child is one of the most incredible things you can do, but to be able to retain and continue a successful career at the same time, is an amazing achievement and something that can only be done in a work environment with a great culture, like KHQ. I hope that I have and will continue to set an example to the other female lawyers in our firm that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. That you don’t necessarily have to choose between having a career and having a family, if you don’t want to. You can have them both. But it is most definitely a challenge and one I face on a daily basis, but having flexible work practices is the key. Given the amazing technology we have, I can work from home as and when needed and log on after hours as necessary.
JC: Do you have any future goals within the legal profession?
MB: I have two firm goals embedded in my future. The first is to have more women reach the senior levels in law practices and achieve partnership. Even now, when females outrank males in the legal profession, males are predominantly in senior roles. I think for the next generation of female lawyers it will be imperative for them to support one another to make it to partnership level, and to ensure that the difficulties facing females in the profession now are not repeated. I can do this by empowering the women I work with, and by setting an example around family/work life balance.
The second goal I have is to try to make a difference in the family violence space. I have worked in various law firms throughout my career, both large and boutique, but the one thing that has remained constant for me has been the presence of family violence in almost all families, no matter their financial status. This has led me to become more active in the family violence space generally. I have now hosted two events with Rosie Batty as main speaker to discuss the significant issues around family violence, the most recent of which was in June 2017.
Through my work as a family lawyer, I can assist clients to obtain intervention orders to keep them safe, to obtain parenting orders or negotiate agreements that minimise contact between the perpetrator and victim and children of that relationship, and finally by obtaining a property settlement or access to capital/income for those families, to enable them to move forward with their lives.
I do work in private practice, but undertake probono work on an adhoc basis and have recently been undertaking probono work from referrals from Rosie Batty.
Our firm also sponsored the National Stop Domestic Violence Conference in Brisbane in December last year, and intend to do so again this year.
Most recently I have formed a close relationship with the Salvation Army and we have put together some fixed fee legal offerings, with the aim of these potentially being funded by way of government grants to assist victims obtain the orders they need to safely separate from their partner, and move on to a new life with certainty around parenting and property arrangements.
We are also involved in the development of a phone app, which will assist victims of family violence access help through a monitoring system, GPS trackers, and various other aids.
I have also been active in arranging free information seminars to victims of family violence through the Salvation Army and Relationships Australia, with the aim of educating those who cannot afford legal advice as to their rights regarding intervention orders, parenting arrangements, and property settlements generally.
JC: If you could choose all over again, would you still be a lawyer?
MB: Yes, absolutely. It is a stressful, and inspiring career, but one that keeps me challenged and fulfilled in equal proportions.
JC: Do you have any advice for someone starting out in the legal profession?
MB: With the large number of law schools in Australia, it is incredibly difficult to find graduate positions in the law. My best advice would be to get as much practical legal experience as you can during university, by seeking legal clerkships, working as a volunteer at a legal centre or by offering to work in a law firm for free if need be. This kind of experience will open doors for you and will give you a strong sense as to whether a legal career will suit your personality, and also what area of the law will suit you best. Also, give some thought to joining a legal organisation such as Victorian Women Lawyers, who include law students as members, as this is not only educational, but a great networking opportunity. They also have a great mentoring program, which is a good way to meet women working in a senior capacity in the profession.
JC: What books or resources you would recommend?
MB: The best resources for those wanting more information around a legal career are as follows: