Barry.Nilsson. principal on the future of family law

Melanie Rubin picks up where other lawyers have left off

Barry.Nilsson. principal on the future of family law

Melanie Rubin has always been gifted at problem-solving, so it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone that she ended up as a family lawyer having a blast as the principal of the team at Barry.Nilsson. Even as a novice, Rubin was already taking on tough cases that seasoned lawyers gave up on.

Two decades of service in the practice have led Rubin to conclude that dispute resolution is “the future of family law”, where the goal is to resolve altercation without the need for litigation. If that doesn’t work, she claims there are more ways to “separate smarter”, like exploring the collaborative practice. Whatever the case, clients can trust that Rubin will find a way to make it work.

In this interview, Rubin shares her involvement under Barry.Nilsson’s pro bono arm, the cultural shift to flexible work arrangements, and the impact of having a single set of Family Law Rules for the first time in 21 years.

What made you choose a career in law, and what is your favourite part of the job?

I have always enjoyed helping people solve their problems. My friends would often put scenarios to me; I would tell them how I see it and show them different possibilities that might occur or options that they may have. I love being involved in generating different options – it’s fun. Being a family lawyer is similar. Clients come to me with their relationship difficulties, and I assist them to either protect their assets or help them to untangle their relationship. Along the way, I give them various options to consider, and together we get to the other side where they are able to tackle the intricacies of parenting post-separation and acknowledging the new status of their relationship. Empowering clients with knowledge and seeing them thrive is probably my favourite part of the job.

What is the most memorable case you have taken on or been involved in?

A career highlight, as a baby lawyer, was picking up the case everyone else in the office had given up on. It was about an ex-South African who had immigrated to Australia, abducted his son from Australia and taken him around the world, living primarily off the grid, as it were. It was suspected that he had settled with his son in Cape Town. I worked tirelessly, and finally I was able to go with the equivalent of the Australian Federal Police to the father’s home, where the Police took the young boy into their care, saving him from continuing to live on the run with his father. I sat with that little boy at the airport until his flight took off. Knowing that he was going to be returned to his mother and would not have to live a life on the run any longer was very rewarding.  

What’s going on at the firm? Are there new programs or initiatives you are particularly interested in?

We’re doing some important work under the pro bono arm of BN’s Impact Project, which is the responsible business arm of the firm. More specifically, the focus of our pro bono work is around women and children, and First Nations Peoples, and we’ve had some wonderful success working on cases for a number of deserving clients. Some of our lawyers are also participating in pro bono secondments to different legal centres around the country. It’s inspiring to see the firm recognise the unique and privileged position we’re in and use that position and our skills to contribute and give back to the community.

What has been your proudest accomplishment or biggest lesson learned in the past year, and advice you can give fellow lawyers about it? 

Living through a pandemic has made us all pivot a little faster than we might otherwise have done. I had always had the flexibility of working from home once per week, but now we all have shown just how much we have been able to accomplish, even when working remotely. In my career, I have always had to press for more flexible working arrangements, often at a sacrifice of salary or title. I feel now that everyone will be able to enjoy those benefits without having to make the many sacrifices I once had to. 

I love that Barry.Nilsson. has harnessed the benefits of the pandemic by embracing true flexible working via our Agile Work Policy, which allows a balance of working from home and working in the office.

I have also learnt this past year that I can be paper light but haven’t quite mastered being paperless. I’m a bit old-school – I enjoy the feeling of a pen in my hand pressing on paper, but I’m working on it!  

What should the profession focus more on?

Dispute resolution is the future of family law. At the end of 2021, Barry.Nilsson. launched its mediation services as part of our national family practice, to help families in Brisbane and Sydney resolve disputes without the need for litigation. It’s a powerful and cost-effective tool to help separating families take ownership of their situation and resolve disputes efficiently and cost-effectively. I have been fortunate enough to be able to contribute to this side of the firm’s offering. I’m very invested in spreading the word and being involved with clients’ separating smarter using the Collaborative Practice process – where, when neither litigation nor mediation are quite right for the family, the collaborative model might be perfect. It’s an exciting space to be working in with some incredible practitioners. We all need to put our heads together as we create an outcome for the family that is tailored for them, whilst fostering positive relations. Let’s be honest, the families we work with still have to work together for many more years after they have left our offices. We have some incredible tools to now assist each family in a bespoke way.

There is, especially post-pandemic, also a real focus on mental health. We work in a highly emotional field where we are at the coalface of raw emotion. It can, and does, take its toll on all of us. The awareness that has, and continues to be, raised around mental health is encouraging, and it’s refreshing to see senior lawyers and principals of firms sharing their stories and normalising the conversation. We have come very far from when I first began practice.

Health and wellbeing has been a big focus at Barry.Nilsson., especially in the last couple of years, and we have continued to expand on the services and initiatives offered to staff under our BNWell program – from exercise programs to employee assistance programs and family violence support and assistance. More recently, we announced a Health & Wellbeing Allowance and Health & Wellbeing Day, which provide all staff with an annual budget to spend on any form of health and wellbeing as well as an additional day of paid annual leave.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice or for the business of law in general?

2021 was a very big year for family lawyers and saw the creation of a new Court with new rules. There is a significant emphasis on dispute resolution opportunities prior to commencing Court proceedings and during the Court process itself, and we’re seeing that people can and are separating smarter. The overarching purpose of family law embedded in the Act is to facilitate the just resolution of disputes, according to the law as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible. For the first time in 21 years, we have a single set of Family Law Rules.  

During the pandemic, the Court implemented a number of innovations and new ways of doing things, including electronic hearings. I am hopeful that the Court Mentions and other shorter Court events will continue to be conducted electronically post-pandemic, so that it’s a more efficient outcome for clients.  

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year? 

Professionally – it was a particularly busy period of growth of Barry.Nilsson.’s family law team at the end of 2021, including launching a family law practice in Perth, welcoming a number of new hires within the team, and launching the firm’s mediation services. This year, I’m looking forward to continuing this growth for our family law team, both nationally and locally in NSW.

Personally – travelling to see family and friends, and more time on my Peloton!

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