Client-focused and empathetic are just some of the terms that can be used when talking about two University of Canberra alumni looking to change the legal industry.
Perpetua (Pepe) Kish and Jono Naef established Balance Family Law in March 2019, with a modern approach to the field – earning them Boutique Law Firm of the Year at the prestigious Australian Law Awards in August 2020.
Pepe graduated from UC in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws, starting her career as an Associate at the ACT Law Courts in the fourth year of her law degree.
Across her career, she has worked for the ACT Statutory Child Protection Agency, and tried her luck as an actor in Sydney, but gravitated to family law in 2010.
Also a UC alumnus, Jono graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 2018, after starting his Bachelor of Justice Studies in the hopes of becoming a police officer.
After finding an interest in the law and switching his degree, Jono graduated and began practising in October 2018.
While the pair graduated from UC 14 years apart, they met while working in a family law firm and discovered they had the same passion for innovation within the industry.
“We realised we had a really good synergy and vision for changing the way family law can be approached, particularly here in Canberra,” Pepe says.
“We were aware a lot of the firms we had worked with prefer the traditional practice and were perhaps a little bit risk averse.
“So we just thought, ‘why work for someone else when we can work for ourselves?’” Jono adds.
After connecting with like-minded lawyers outside of Canberra, Pepe and Jono decided it was possible to bring their collaborative approach to family law to the local industry.
From there, the concept of Balance Family Law began – a business focused on its clients, with a fixed and capped fee structure and an overall aim of settling matters outside of court.
Pepe and Jono adopt a peaceful approach. They do not switch hats from conciliatory to litigious.
“We are consistently kind, collaborative and solutions-focused in our approach,” Pepe says.
“We know it can be daunting to receive correspondence from a lawyer, so we use friendly and informal plain language, explaining why we are asking what we are asking, and we invite everyone to work with us – we don’t use any threats.
“Our approach is to face a problem as a team instead of expecting the other side to jump through all these hoops ‘or else’.”
“We also make comparatively more use of technology to streamline our work processes, obtain information from our clients and sort our systems,” Jono adds. “We are an agile firm, and embrace technology not only to make our job easier and reduce our admin, but to make us more accessible to clients.”
Jono, who was heavily involved in developing the firm’s fixed fee structure, explains that the purpose behind it is to alleviate pressure for both the lawyer and the client.
“Often in a family law matter, the client can feel like they are losing legal control and having some certainty of cost gives them a level of control,” Jono says.
Jono and Pepe know their clients are experiencing a stressful time, and have an overarching goal to make the legal arrangements as efficient as possible.
“Our focus isn’t on the cost, but the value we can provide to the client and we look at the whole case in a holistic way,” Pepe says.
“As a trained conflict coach, I like to work with our clients on their mindset, expectations and what they can control instead of focusing on the actions of their ex. This creates a different frame for thinking about things – and very often, a more positive and level-headed approach to their separation.”
As the company comes up to two years of operation, both Pepe and Jono say they hope more people within their industry turn to the collaborative method they have adopted.
“We do get some resistance from certain practitioners, who think that family law has always been done a certain way, and are sticklers for rules and tradition,” Pepe says.
“But rather than seeing them as competitors and shutting them out of our philosophies, we want to invite them in. We can create far greater impact in the family law space if there are more lawyers committed to doing things differently and being genuinely collaborative.”
For their innovation and passion, Balance Family Law was named the Boutique Law Firm of the Year 2020 at the Lawyers Weekly Australian Law Awards – after just 15 months of operation.
After being nominated in July last year and submitting all relevant paperwork, Pepe and Jono say they weren’t feeling too hopeful about a victory.
“We were really fortunate to be named as finalists, and went into it thinking a firm nominated for the first time would never win something like that – we just thought it would be great exposure,” Jono says. “So it was a bit of a shock to win a national award like that.”
Balance Family Law were also named Rising Stars in Family Law 2020, and received an International Advisory Experts Award and the Family Law Firm of the Year Award at the Corporate LiveWire Global Awards 2020. Pepe also received two Ausmumpreneur Awards for Emerging AusMumpreneur and Service Business Award at the 2020 Ausmumpreneur Awards.
After a busy year, Pepe and Jono agree that the focus of 2021 will be less on awards, and focused even more on their goal of incorporating kindness into family law.
Words by Danielle Meddemmen, photo by Jenny Wu