Search our site...


Q&A: Carla Giles – “I'm passionate about contributing to the growth and development of our junior solicitors who will go on to shape family law in the future.”

Carla, you were raised in regional New South Wales and now service clients in Newcastle and Maitland, plus other regional and remote areas, through The Family Law Co, a boutique practice offering family law, criminal law, estate claims and ancillary services. How did you get into the profession?

My journey into law was not straightforward. A lot of people leave school and enter law after university, but I didn’t do that. I had severe epilepsy in my teens and into my early twenties, so I wasn’t initially able to go to university and study. It was only when I was in my mid-twenties that I thought about studying law after I’d been doing administration work in a law firm in regional NSW. My father encouraged me and supported me to enroll and, once I started, I just loved it. I studied part-time at night through the University of Sydney Law Extension Committee course and worked in a law firm during the day doing admin work. It took me quite a long time to finish the course.

Family law is now your chief area of practice. Was that always the plan?

I didn’t think I would end up in family law. All my studies were focused on international commercial arbitration and I assumed I would end up in that area of practice. But when I was looking to finish my degree, I reached out to some regional law firms as I was keen to get back to the bush and a position came up as a paralegal for a family law firm. I took the job and it was a little coincidental in a way because my parents went through a high-conflict separation when I was young and we went through the whole family court process. So, when I stepped into family law as a solicitor, it just made sense to me. I understood the emotional journey that people were going on and how difficult that process was for them. Something just clicked for me and I have been enjoying it ever since.

Epilepsy is clearly a serious and debilitating condition. How are you faring on that front?

I got the disease under control in my mid-twenties around the time I enrolled in law and haven’t suffered from it seriously since. I’m fortunate in that regard because it was a very difficult period of my life. It really impacted my ability to progress my life in the way that my friends did when they were going to university and finishing their courses.

The theme of this edition of the Australasian Law Management Journal is ‘people’. Why are people so crucial to the success of your firm?

People are everything to me and everything to our firm. They shape the culture of our firm. Without the right staff and people who are the right fit, we just wouldn’t be in the position that we’re in today. It’s also important for our clients to have people who they can relate to and who they get along with because family law matters can go on for a long time, so having continuity of staff is critical. That’s why it’s so important to me to retain staff and make sure that they’re developing their skills and want to stay – for the benefit of the firm and our clients.

What strategies do you employ to recruit and retain top talent?

Mentoring has been a big part of our success. I provide mentoring to our three junior solicitors, who have been with me pretty much since they graduated. They’ve all developed their skills from that graduate level to become very competent lawyers who run all their own hearings. They’re now fully trained, and the fact that they’re staying on with the firm can, I think, be attributed to the mentoring we’ve provided them. We have a small, boutique firm and it’s been really important for me to get to know my staff individually, to learn about their personal and professional goals, and to develop their capabilities and give them work that matches their abilities and goals.

On the subject of mentoring, congratulations on your award last year as Mentor of the Year at the Australian Law Awards. Can you tell us about the award and your passion for mentoring?

To be recognised in that way on a national platform was just wonderful. I am passionate about mentoring for various reasons. I see it as a two-way street. I have benefited from having exceptional mentors in my life, and I’m passionate about contributing to the growth and development of our junior solicitors who will go on to shape family law in the future. In that way, I see my role and the role of all leaders in our profession as being the architects of the profession in developing those junior lawyers. By guiding them and mentoring them, I really do think that we are laying the foundation for our profession. I also really believe that, while law school is great and lays a solid foundation for our solicitors, it fails to provide them with an understanding of the true realities of the profession.

Can you explain that idea a little more?

Well, especially in family law, you need the ability to connect with clients from a diverse background and support them in a difficult time of their life as they go through a separation. That’s a skill which can’t be acquired through textbooks or through university; it has to be acquired in practice, and that’s where we can mentor our junior staff on those skills.

I also believe that the mentoring and employer roles extend beyond providing legal knowledge to junior lawyers. We also need to instill in them the personal values and professional values that will contribute to their success. They need to understand the importance of personal wellbeing and work out their personal goals as they develop as people, not just lawyers. By offering that guidance and support, I do hope to equip my junior lawyers with the tools that they can use to navigate the demanding nature of family law, without sacrificing their own wellbeing and their own personal relationships outside of the office.

Are there any particular lessons you have learnt about mentoring through your experiences?

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Two of our staff members have been neurodiverse and that has required me as a leader and as a mentor to step back and assess how I deliver my mentorship to staff and adapt to their requirements. For example, I usually mentor people orally, face to face, whereas my neurodiverse staff have required it to be through writing. So, adapting to a delivery method through which we’re all getting what we need has been vital and I believe this approach contributed to me winning the national mentoring award.

Do you have any specific mentoring tips for other law firm professionals?

First, firms should appreciate that mentoring itself is good for business, but in saying that I don’t think the mentoring process can be about the business. It can’t be all about ‘what can I as an employer and what can we as a business get out of this’. Mentoring must be about the mentee and adding value to the mentee’s life. As mentioned before, it’s also important that mentors in the legal sphere impart not just their legal knowledge, but their life experience as well. We all face the same challenges in life, especially as women – for example, the burnout you can experience in law, juggling children and other relationships outside of work, and navigating the ups and downs of a career. As leaders, we are obliged to talk about that stuff, especially with junior lawyers and other young staff, so we can make them feel supported as they navigate those challenges. I’d also make the comment that there’s no one-size-fits-all mentoring or leadership approach, just as there’s no one-size-fits-all wellness approach.

The final tip I’d offer is that consistency is one of the keys to good mentoring. You need to keep turning up, even if there's nothing to talk about sometimes, and make time regularly and consistently to connect with mentees and prioritise the mentoring role. For our firm, the calibre of the training and the mentoring that we put into our staff is like an investment in them and our clients. We now have staff who can provide excellent, exceptional service to our clients – and the clients obviously benefit from that as well.

Who have been your mentors, and what lessons did you learn from them?

I’ve had some great mentors in my life, but my Dad was probably my number one mentor. As I stated earlier, when I was in my twenties I really felt like I was quite behind compared with my peers. The mentorship that my Dad provided me at that time – to back myself and start studying – was really a turning point in my life.

Did your father have a background in law?

Yes, he is a lawyer and he does own his own firm, and it’s always helpful to have somebody in the industry who is guiding you. I’ve also had mentors outside the law. In 2016, I pursued a career in politics when I was working in a State Member of Parliament’s office and I ran for preselection for the National Party. During that process I was mentored extensively by a sheep farmer named Warwick, and he would take me to coffee every week. We would chat about politics and the processes and the people, and he also assisted me to write my speeches. His support during that period was so valuable and so important to me that I think without that I would not have felt encouraged or capable of going down that path. I devoted about three years of my life to that political stint.

Do you still have political ambitions?

No, I’m too busy with the firm now!

What is the goal for The Family Law Co?

Well, we’re growing at the moment. We’re in the process of having two new solicitors start, so that will bring our total head count to six, which will make us one of the bigger family law teams in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. We want to expand our service offering, so the solicitors who are coming on board have complementary areas of practice. That aside, we just want to continue to provide exceptional service to our clients. I’m not planning to grow too big because I really do think it’s important being in family law – which is such a very emotional and personal area of law – to have a small team that can provide really great service to our clients. In terms of mentoring, I plan to continue doing that as long as I am working in The Family Law Co. Our staff are all approaching different stages of their lives, including having children. So, continuing to take a one-on-one, not a one-size-fits-all, approach to my mentoring and leadership to them is going to be particularly important during the next year or two. I want to see them flourish.

Do you have any other messages or advice for your peers?

All I would say is that there are a lot of junior lawyers leaving the law, and particularly family law. As I am looking at the job advertisements that firms are putting out, I have not seen one ad that has mentioned a strong, formal mentorship program as part of the job offering. I would encourage law firms and leaders to think about that because, if we continue down a path where students or graduates come in and are just expected to sink or swim, we are going to continue losing junior lawyers out of the profession. That’s clearly to the detriment of our profession.