Family Law
Family & Relationship Law 13 September 2023

Making the change to Family Law – by Bonnie Phillips

As a Deakin law student, journeying through my studies in Contracts, Commercial, and Tax Law, the prospect of studying (let alone practicing in) Family Law, was at the opposite end of the spectrum of where I saw my career to be headed.

For many of the students in my cohort, the ultimate goal was to finish law school and attain a graduate role at a large commercial law firm. This was considered to be the definition of success.

Having achieved a high distinction average in Tax Law, and after shadowing a prominent barrister in a landmark tax case before the High Court of Australia during my studies, I was fortunate enough to land one of these coveted graduate roles at a commercial law firm in 2010.  On day one of my graduate year, I walked through the front door of the law firm, fresh faced, enthusiastic, and picturing a long career ahead of me acting for corporations and organisations in complex tax disputes.

However, to my surprise, upon meeting with human resources, I was informed that my first rotation at the firm, would be in Family Law.  Whilst I was grateful to have the opportunity of a graduate role, I recall thinking to myself “there must have been some mistake, Family Law is not for me!” — oh, how wrong I was.

Fast forward to 2023, and I have now been practicing exclusively in Family Law for the past 12 years. The truth is — I have never looked back.

Family law has given me a breadth of experience over the years; from working in private practice as a junior lawyer and volunteering my spare time with Women’s Legal Service Victoria (“WLSV”), to now managing one of the largest Family Law teams across metropolitan Melbourne and Regional Victoria.

My time volunteering at WLSV was both humbling and rewarding — it was a great start to my career as a junior Family Lawyer. It opened my eyes to the challenges facing women in society who are experiencing relationship breakdown, and it ignited my passion to make a real difference.  Often, the advice that I was required to provide at WLSV was urgent and complex.  My role there could have been likened to triage in a hospital emergency department. Women called in distress, frequently requiring access to emergency accommodation, family violence intervention orders, and advice as to parenting arrangements and securing financial support.  I recall a particularly serious call, whereby a woman called me at WLSV after her home was burnt to the ground by her former husband, and she and the children were left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  Whilst remaining calm and reassuring the woman, I was required to provide her with level-headed advice as to the immediate next steps for her and the children, such as attending the police to apply for an intervention order, as well as refer her to the necessary supports.  Whilst confronting for me at the time as a junior Family Lawyer, I could see the impact that my assistance was having for these women, and it was extremely rewarding.

Supporting women and victims of family violence remains an area of the law that is still very important to me and arises in many of the cases that I continue to handle to this day.

In addition to these types of issues, I now also act in a variety of Family Law matters, including divorce and de facto separations, parenting arrangements, interstate and international relocations, child abduction, adoption, surrogacy and fertility law, child support, property settlement, and the preparation of Binding Child Support Agreements and Financial Agreements (colloquially known as “prenups”).  The matters range from being heard in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, and some cross over with proceedings before the Supreme Court of Victoria if they involve commercial disputes.  Indeed, Family Law matters are far reaching and often involve many other areas of the law including criminal, wills and estates, commercial, and of course, tax law.

No two days are the ever same in Family Law, with each client presenting with their own unique story, issues, and challenges. The day may begin by resolving a basic property matter between two parties by consent, and end by issuing an out of hours urgent application to ground an aeroplane to prevent a child from being abducted overseas. It is an exciting and ever-changing area of the law that only truly presented itself to me in practice, after I had finished law school. It is an area that requires a lawyer to exhibit various skills, including technical legal ability, empathy, interpersonal skills, and advocacy.

I am forever grateful that my surprising first graduate rotation was in Family Law, as it allowed me to find an area of the law that suited my personality, abilities, strengths, and passions.  As it turns out, Family Law has been the right choice for me after all.

This article was originally posted in the Deakin Law Society Et Cetera publication

Bonnie Phillips.
Bonnie Phillips Principal Lawyer Head of Family & Relationship Law View profile
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