“Marble floors, city views or a prestigious address” are not what clients need, Bree Knoester says
At the heart of Bree Knoester’s desire to pursue law was a desire to help people rebuild their lives after an injury, and this same desire became the impetus for why she has chosen to launch her own practice, Brave Legal.
What really matters to clients is a lawyer who can advise them “clearly, precisely and compassionately,” she says. And that doesn’t need “marble floors, city views or a prestigious address” – even the simple comfort of one’s home will do. As a mum who likes to stay involved with her career even on parental leave, Knoester has become a strong advocate of flexible work arrangements – especially for parents.
In this interview, Knoester also talks about what men can do to help promote gender equality in the legal profession, the challenge of running a new boutique, the value of technology adoption in law and the unexpected freedoms created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What's your favourite part of working in law?
Meeting new clients, often at the most difficult time in their lives, is a privilege and helping them understand the law that applies to their situation and their options is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
Being able to deliver information clearly and with compassion can demystify the legal process for clients and help them feel that they have some control over a situation they likely never saw themselves in – being injured. My clients often have to share personal and medical information with me – very often at our first meeting – and tell me about many difficult aspects of their life. As a result, we sometimes learn things about our clients that they have shared with very few people. I see this is a sign of trust by our clients and take seriously my responsibility to listen and respond with compassion and empathy. What then occurs is the creation of a strong working relationship where I understand my client’s story and needs and they know, in exchange, that I will act and advocate for them to the best of my ability.
What prompted your decision to strike out on your own?
Working with clients and advocating on their behalf ensures my job has constant variety and different challenges, especially as I work in all areas of personal injury. The client work is what I love and after a long period of managing a large team, I wanted to get back to what really made me want to be a lawyer – helping people restore their lives after an injury. There are not many jobs where you have a role in changing someone’s future, and I really see that as what a personal injury lawyer does. The magic occurs when an excellent outcome is delivered in a way that improves the wellbeing of the client. This can be achieved when the lawyer has excellent EQ, cares for each client and is continually mindful of the impact of the legal process on the client and their family.
What is going on at the firm? What initiatives are in the pipeline to meet the firm's goals?
At the time of writing this, Brave Legal is only five days old, but we have big dreams! At Brave Legal we want to ensure legal resolve is synonymous with health and wellbeing. To achieve this we have implemented a “Brave Support” program which offers free counselling and social work assistance to any client who needs additional support. This is a free, confidential, optional service that recognises the strain that legal proceedings can put on an individual and a family and aims to share that burden. Whilst our client’s injuries often cannot be resolved or improved for the long term, we can offer support and services to try and ensure their psychological wellbeing is protected.
We also have a program in development called “Brave Funding” where we fund the first round of immunotherapy treatment for our clients who have mesothelioma – the terminal disease caused by asbestos exposure. Immunotherapy is now a common option after a course of chemotherapy is completed, but immunotherapy is expensive and not on the PBS. It can cost up to $6,000 per dose and is delivered frequently – until it is no longer effective. Many clients wish to commence this treatment urgently but cannot afford to do so. When Brave Legal is pursuing a claim for a client, we will fund the first round so that treatment can commence.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
Clients don’t necessarily want or need marble floors, city views or a prestigious address. In my experience, clients want a lawyer who can give advice clearly, precisely and compassionately. These skills can be competently delivered via Zoom from your study, in person or when working flexibly. I would encourage lawyers to continue to embrace some of the unintended freedoms that the COVID-19 experience gave us. We were able to work just as well from home (once our children went back to school!) and we could open the study door and be home for dinner. We now have a real opportunity to be closer to our families – or our pets, sporting activities and friends – while still being an expert in our field and available to our clients.
In 2020, I also had a period of parental leave. During this time, I learned that with flexible work practices and technology there is no need for parents to “step out” of the workforce (unless they want to) when they have children. I have seen many excellent, predominantly female lawyers, lose their clients and their grasp on the practice they so diligently built up only for it to be “re-allocated” when they are farewelled to have a baby. We can do so much better than this!
Whilst many parents want complete time out after a baby is born – which is completely understandable – many women want to stay involved, keep their hand in and keep their skills up. As workplaces realise that learning, teaching and working can take place away from the traditional desk, those women who want to stay connected and even stay working after baby is born should be cheered on and encouraged to do so. The past year taught me that a parent working whilst a baby sleeps is a highly efficient and focused member of staff.
Why do workplaces commonly have a fairly benign approach to parental leave? Why is the discussion commonly “how long are you away for?” and not “what can we do to keep you involved?” I would like to see less “farewell” activities at workplaces when mothers are having babies and more brave, supportive discussions about how workplaces can ensure women’s progression, involvement and practices are preserved. COVID-19 has shown us that we can almost overnight radically change the way we work. We should take this agility and apply it to initiatives that will really change the experience of women in the workplace.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
In addition to changing our attitudes towards parental leave and the traditional way in which lawyers work (in offices, long hours, away from home), we are yet to see sufficient numbers of women in senior positions in many law firms. The profession continues to lose good women to in-house roles, government roles or outside of the law altogether. I call on senior men in the legal profession to champion a deserving female in their workplace – call on their views, highlight their achievements, involve them in key decision making. Not just because they are female – but because they are capable and female. Until there is proper diversity at senior levels, old ways of doing things (such as the aforementioned long hours away from home) will continue to be perpetuated as junior lawyers adopt the practices of those above them. We need to see diversity in decision-makers, in how they work, where they work and the values they propound outside of the workplace. I do not believe this will happen until law firms actively foster, support and raise up their female stars.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that this is achieved by committees focused on women or just constituted by women to examine the issue. Men and women must recognise that diversity will not occur until both commit to examining their workplaces to see where there is continuing inequity and imbalance.
What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
The challenges of a boutique practice range from missing my former national IT helpdesk to deciding when to grow our team. At Brave Legal, we very clearly see that clients want a personal connection with their lawyer, the firm they are working with and they want their lawyer to be expert. As such, our priority is to remain boutique but to constantly improve our knowledge of the law and the way in which we work.
We have rolled out an entirely new IT system to improve efficiency and simplify how we work, which will ensure we are entirely electronic and able to work from any location. That said, rapidly shifting to this type of model has been a big job for our team and takes time to get used to. I am sure many firms had the same experience. Despite considering myself moderately IT-savvy, every day I am shown new IT tips and tricks by my team. Whilst this can be a little overwhelming, it is yet another way that we are improving our expertise and that can only be good for us, and our clients. As a result of this experience, my team have now worked remotely, across states, across different time zones and been able to seamlessly look after clients in Australia, the United Kingdom and USA.
What has been equally as impressive is the way the courts have transformed how they work and embraced technology such that court appearances can easily be done via Zoom, inspection of documents can be done electronically and witnesses can give evidence from their laptop. During the pandemic, I had a terminally ill client who required an urgent court hearing. I had a strong feeling on a Sunday morning that he was days away from dying and I needed an urgent order from the Supreme Court. In two hours, I was able to prepare an affidavit which a colleague electronically witnessed via Zoom, contacted an associate and arranged to appear before a Supreme Court Justice via Zoom who made the necessary orders, preserving my client’s case. I never would have thought that this was possible – nor that I would appear in court from my study with a suit jacket on, trainers on my feet and a baby on the playmat behind me. This adaptability by the court directly preserved my client’s entitlement as he died a short while later.
So whilst this type of situation is a constant challenge when representing clients with asbestos-related diseases, our courts have ensured that technology now, in fact, makes it easier for clients like mine to pursue life-changing claims.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I am so looking forward to seeing and reconnecting with my clients. I spoke to my clients often during COVID-19 and there was much email correspondence, but the chance to work with them in person – as many have matters coming to conclusion – will be very rewarding.
Personally, commencing Brave Legal gives me a unique and rare opportunity to change the way I work. I was that lawyer that spent long hours at the desk and computer churning out post-9pm emails in addition to spending weekends catching-up on work. And I learned that my team and my clients started to adopt these habits – my team would often work late with me and were always contactable. My clients knew I would respond at all hours, weekends included. My view now is that the braver work style is one where it is absolutely fine to work long and hard but not to create contagious work habits that others feel they must adopt. So now, I don’t send emails after hours and any after-hours contact is limited to a funny tag on Instagram or a message about who is bringing in morning tea. When I am in the Brave Legal office, I leave in the afternoon to be home with my husband and children and work flexibly if clients or cases require my attention. I encourage my team to embrace similar habits. I trust them implicitly and know they care for our clients as much as I do. At Brave Legal our values are brave, committed, compassionate and precise. I am looking forward to living these values in all that I do in 2021.