Bree Knoester, Managing Partner at Adviceline Injury Lawyers (a division of Holding Redlich), was called to the Bar after only 2 years in practice but eventually found her way back to practising as a solicitor. She says the experience she gained at the Bar has been critical in growing her personal injury practice.
Here, she talks about how she handles the demands of emotionally difficult cases and offers thoughts on career growth and the future of the profession.
Crowd & Co: Can you tell me a little about the key milestones along your career path to date?
Bree Knoester: A key milestone was going to the Bar in 2006. I was 25 years of age and it was still at a time where there were not a lot of young women at the Bar. I developed a broad personal injury practice and had the opportunity to appear alone in all courts and appear with Queen’s Counsel. Many of those Queen’s Counsel encouraged me to develop my advocacy skills and gave me opportunities to appear in high profile cases acting for the most seriously injured plaintiffs.
My time at the Bar taught me negotiation and advocacy skills that I use every day in practice and try to pass on to the lawyers that work with me. It also enabled me to develop relationships with practitioners on all sides of the law and appreciate the pressures affecting both plaintiffs and defendants. I believe this insight and those relationships help me to achieve excellent results for our clients today.
I left the Bar and joined Holding Redlich as a Partner in 2014 and in 2016 I was appointed to the Executive (akin to our Board) where I represent our Melbourne office. I am also Parenting and Diversity Partner and sit on our People and Development Committee. Working with our lawyers and staff is really the key reason why I joined the firm and the ability to be able to influence where our firm is going and develop our future leaders is something I love. I definitely consider it a milestone.
C&Co: Is it possible to single out a few career achievements you are most proud of?
BK: As Counsel and instructed by my firm, I represented a severely psychiatrically injured photojournalist in a world first case ever brought against a media organisation. Our client had developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of traumatic work she did, which included covering the Bali bombings.
Investigating this case led me to interview journalists and researchers from London, New York, New Zealand, Los Angeles and the Middle East as well as senior army officials and high-profile CNN, ABC and BBC journalists. It taught me about the challenging work of the journalist and the prevalence of mental ill-health in the industry. It introduced me to the work of the Dart Organisation which is dedicated to raising awareness on the effect of trauma on journalists and is based out of Columbia University in New York.
While the case was not successful, I was proud that we pursued it so doggedly and I am confident it led to change in local newsrooms. It also led me to join the board of Dart and continue the work I had learned about during the case.
My learnings from this case have affected how I lead my team as Managing Partner of Adviceline Injury Lawyers. Dealing with injured people can be difficult and personally challenging at times; making sure our lawyers have the emotional skills to do this day in, day out, is just as important as their legal skills. To facilitate this, I have implemented a resilience program for the team which offers regular training on mindfulness, trauma awareness, resilience and how to manage difficult situations.
I am really proud to be the Managing Partner of Adviceline Injury Lawyers. We have over 40 staff across five locations and provide advice in all aspects of personal injury. We pride ourselves on being accessible to our clients and providing a personal service. I still love to work “at the coal-face” and if I am answering the “Adviceline” (our free telephone service where callers speak directly to a lawyer and not a secretary or call centre), I work on their case from start to finish.
C&Co: You deal with a lot of emotionally difficult cases. Is this the biggest challenge you face in your career? How do you deal with this?
BK: Yes, it is. I look after our clients who have developed a dust disease; most commonly mesothelioma – an aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The terminal nature of this disease means that I am working with these families at often the worst time in their lives. As the cases run very quickly, you develop quick bonds with your clients and their families. It is always sobering to remember that in many cases you are trying to obtain compensation for the families after their loved one passes away. However, this work is incredibly rewarding.
The opportunity to hear someone’s life story, sit in their home and meet their family is a privilege. For them to then put their trust in you so quickly is something I appreciate and motivates me to work hard to pursue their claims as hard as I can.
The work is emotionally taxing, and I run long distances to reset. As I mentioned, I feel very passionately about our resilience and mindfulness training. I join my team in these sessions with the wonderful Robyn Brady (a mental health accredited social worker, specialising in resilience and stress management training for the legal profession) and ask my team to remind me when I need to re-focus or simply “chill out”! This might mean I work from home at times or go for a walk around the block after a difficult client or conversation.
C&Co: What are the things that have been critical in growing your career?
BK: I was taught as an articled clerk that relationships are everything and that good outcomes and a good reputation can be developed early and quickly if you are good to deal with and do not “sweat the small stuff.”
This was taught to me by a partner who had been at the firm for over 45 years and meant that after only two years in practice as solicitor, and by the time I went to the Bar, I had developed a strong network of lawyers in personal injury litigation who briefed me as Counsel. As a result, I enjoyed a busy and varied life as a barrister, acting both for both plaintiffs and defendants.
Also, if growing your career is akin to thriving in your career, then mentors, role models and confidantes have been critical. Being a lawyer is a tough job – our clients want us working on their cases as often as we can, we have budgets to meet, teams to lead and competition in the market is stronger than ever. It is important to have someone to talk to when things get tough, who understands your situation and can provide support and guidance – or takes you out for a champagne when all else fails!
C&Co: What other career advice has been helpful for you?
BK: I was also told early on in my career, that fortunately in our area of work, money can fix mistakes. I was told “no one dies if you make a mistake, and you will, so when you do, speak up straight away.” This helped me put my work in perspective, and also gave me the confidence to ask for help when I needed it and when mistakes were made.
The law seems to attract A-type personalities and perfectionists for whom mistakes represent failure, but we cannot be right all the time. Only today did our newest graduate who had been in our team for three days point out to me an error in my analysis of some legislation – what a superstar! And I was proud she did and proud it was witnessed by another lawyer so they can see that we don’t know everything (even after 15 years in the one area)!
C&Co: What things do you think will define successful lawyers in the next decade?
BK: Successful lawyers will adapt and grow their practices reflective of the evolving needs of their clients. They will look for opportunities to add niche practice areas to their skill-set. In personal injury litigation there tends to be a lot of specialists who focus on one area of personal injury. We encourage our lawyers to work in more than three different types of personal injury law so they can readily advise clients on a multitude of issues.
In the commercial sphere, I see successful lawyers developing in the same way so that they become advisors to their clients and can advise on all aspects of a commercial problem. In this way, they become part of their client’s “family” in much the same way we do when we step in to assist after an injury has occurred.
C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in the future for lawyers?
BK: Balance – trying to achieve balance in life while working in an area which can be all-consuming.
Unfortunately, technology has encroached on the time we spend outside of the office so that those times feel less free of the burden of the work. Learning to switch off will be a challenge as we become more personally accessible and can access our work more readily via technology.
C&Co: What’s one piece of technology that’s changing the way you work for the better?
BK: We have a great instant messaging system called Jabber that I use to liaise with my team so that we all know what is happening on a file. We can message from court to let the office know what is happening live from court or I use it when working remotely so that I can keep up to speed with what is going on in the office without having to generate an email or make a telephone call. Unfortunately, it is so effective that I have been known to message from a pool-side location when on holidays to pass on instructions to settle a case!
I need to read my last answer again!
C&Co: What are the key changes you see as necessary to help improve the specific experience of female lawyers?
BK: Two things: we need more senior women in the Boardroom promoting women and senior men who advocate for women. I remember sitting in a mediation while at the Bar and looking around a room of 20 lawyers. I was the only female.
Similarly, I attend some Board meetings and at times can be the only female representative. Fortunately, in both situations I have had the benefit of working with senior men who never overlooked my contribution and actively sought it out.
The experience of female lawyers is unique. Very often, female lawyers are juggling family demands or the demand to have a family, caring for family members (both young and elderly) and working in an area which remains, at senior levels, relatively male dominated. The stress of having to step out of the workforce to have children is something that can commence well before having a child and continue well after. We need to recognise this and create workplaces need to have proactive, brave practices to ensure that female lawyers in this position are supported and promoted back into the workplace.
C&Co: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BK: Never underestimate the value of time off to balance the demands of work. I admit that I work long hours and often on weekends. But when I can, I take the opportunity to start a little later to drop my daughter off at kinder or try and leave early or even find a day where I don’t have client meetings to work from home.
It is important to me to also schedule in some time in my diary for exercise, for a few hours away from the phone, computer and spend some time outdoors. What gets measured (or in this case, diarised), gets done!