When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
Well, when I completed my Honours thesis (in Sociology) in 1996 I was offered an opportunity to go straight to PhD, which I initially accepted; I began to think over that summer about what sort of job I would be able to find when I had completed the doctorate. Nothing came to mind! I knew that it was fairly easy to transfer to another discipline at Monash, and kind of fantasised about “what I would like to do, and what would give me a clear path to employment…”. Law was the standout. I had already had dreams of “making the world a better place” and could think of nothing more in keeping with my skill base that might, one day, translate to realising my dream. A short time later I began my journey into law…
What was the single moment, case or event that you feel defined you as a lawyer?
In 2009, having been practising for 7-8 years, I realised that I was very unhappy. I had a decent career as a family lawyer with a boutique Melbourne CBD law firm, and had also worked as a lawyer in suburban settings as well as at a community legal centre. And yet, I felt part of a system that normalised the intrusion of lawyers and courts into the lives of couples, parents and children. I thought: “there must be a better way”. A short time later, I trained as a mediator and walked away from private practice. Better Separations was born…
How do you balance life and work?
Not take your work home with you. Try to find genuine friends within the profession who you can confide in and have open discussion with. One of the biggest failings of the profession, in my experience, is the combative nature not only by lawyers representing clients, but between lawyers who compete among themselves. Inevitably there will be lawyers who are so inclined, and good luck to them, but being able to find someone to confide in who understands the demands of the profession and who can be a sounding board/mentor, whatever, is vital. Most other professions have formal supervision to assist professionals to deal with the demands of their work. Arguably lawyers need confidential, neutral, supervision at least as much if not more than most, yet we collectively seem to still not value this aspect of our profession.
What are your hopes for our profession?
That in relation to family law, there continues to be a broad shift away from litigation as “the norm”. To my mind, litigation should be very much the exception and not the rule.
What about the intersection between mediation and family law?
I think the Howard federal government were on the right path when they began emphasising the need for mediation (FDR) to be a pre-condition to making an application to the court. But I feel that it has proved to be a fairly impotent tool in terms of providing a genuine option for high conflict situations. For example, by comparison to a medical model, it seems that society in general can distinguish between seeing a GP at a bulk billing or like medical practice, with choosing to see a GP or even a specialist when they want to rely on medical advice / treatment for (say) life-threatening or other serious situations.
But in a family law context, it seems that the general public are somewhat in the dark about the ability and differences between mediators (FDRP’s) who might be limited in their respective ability to comprehensively respond and spend the necessary preliminary time with a (high conflict) couple. This might be because the employee FDRP lacks life experience, is limited by budget or time, or other such organisational circumstances. This is compared with private mediators/FDRP’s who are arguably more able to draw on their own skills and abilities at engaging with clients and still maintain a genuine ADR focus. Perhaps cynically, it could be said that family lawyers benefit from such shortcomings of the current FDR structure.
What challenges confront new graduate family lawyers?
I think there is substantial pressure on new employee lawyers within established firms because of the vast differences in working as a litigator, compared with the actual needs of a client’s family to find a way to avoid unnecessary exposure to litigation and courts. New graduate lawyers are expected to “show their stuff” as potential litigation lawyers to be reckoned with (for example: being defensive / attacking, denying allegations for strategic purposes, using delaying techniques, and so on). However, when we consider that it is fairly normal for a client to seek counsel of a lawyer in relation to a divorce / separation / parenting or property dispute, the types of behaviours that an employee lawyer is under pressure to demonstrate, I argue, is almost always the complete opposite of what a family needs. That is, an outcome and process that avoids, if at all possible, the risk of further damage to the members of such family and the overall ability of the family unit to ever recover enough to function effectively in the future.
Mike Wells is a family lawyer of more than 12 years experience. In 2009 he stopped going to court as he was uncomfortable with continuing to be part of a systemic response to divorce that normalised the involvement of lawyers and courts in the lives of families. He thought: “there just has to be a better way”. And Better Separations was born.
Mike remains working in the area of ‘family law’ but only with people who are interested in and committed to finding alternative dispute resolution options, such as collaboration, roundtable conferencing, mediation / family dispute resolution. Mike is a Law Institute of Victoria accredited Mediator, pursuant to National Mediator Accreditation System (NMAS) guidelines.