Family law is a great challenge
Gillian Lowndes is a partner at Lowndes Dlamini Attorneys. She tells Margaret Harris that as a young child she dreamt of becoming a ballerina, but from the age of 16 she knew she wanted to pursue a career in law.
What do you do at work?
I write a lot. I spend a great deal of time putting together documents for court, making telephone calls (drinking copious quantities of coffee), researching and strategising. In other words, thinking very hard about the next move to make in the chess game that is the law.
What drew you to this career?
I knew from the age of about 16 that I wanted to pursue a career in law, and after university I worked at a firm that specialised in commercial litigation. Essentially, we dealt with commercial disputes that were resolved either in court or in an arbitration setting.
Due to the nature of the practice, there were always matrimonial matters that landed on my desk, and I eventually realised that my passion lay in the field of family rather than commercial law.
What do you find most appealing about working in family law?
Family law is a fascinating topic. The people I encounter are all interesting in their own way. The journey, although sometimes challenging, is always stimulating.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I always wanted to be a ballerina — not that I put much effort into the task. I just loved the idea of the costumes and the stage performance.
What about your job gets you out of bed each day?
While this will sound a little twee, I really love what I do — I look forward to going to the office every day and meeting whatever the day has in store for me head on. I am a people person, so I find the interaction with clients and colleagues very stimulating. Each day brings with it a new problem that needs to be solved!
I also have a new puppy, so getting out of bed early in the morning is no longer optional as she is up at 5am.
What about your job keeps you awake at night?
I think the most difficult part of what I do is managing people’s expectations, particularly pertaining to the financial aspects of a divorce.
When it comes to divorce, our law has very set parameters within which you are able to operate - it depends on how the parties were married as to how the financial aspects of the divorce dispute will play out.
Most clients have a notion of what they believe to be a “fair” outcome in their particular dispute, and very often this does not accord with what they are entitled to in terms of the law. This leads to frustration and fear, which is often difficult to manage, and often leads to a sleepless night on my part.
Unfortunately, at this stage there is no real mechanism by which a sense of “equity” can be injected into our matrimonial law. I would love to see this develop.
What would you do if you could not do this job?
I absolutely love what I do, and can’t imagine doing anything else.
But if, for whatever reason, I was unable to continue to practise law I would probably try to get a lecturing or teaching position that would fulfil my need to be around people and also enable me to continue to read and analyse and remain immersed in the field.
What qualifications do you have, and how do they help you do your job?
I have a BCom LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand, and am in the process of completing my Masters in family law through Unisa.
I am finding the time constraints of working, being a mother and studying to be very challenging, but I have found the benefits of studying further to be hugely rewarding.
Family law is a very dynamic field, and one that lends itself to constant scrutiny and debate.
What qualities do you need to do this job?
I don’t profess to know all the qualities one needs to be a good family lawyer. However, good organisational and people skills are vital.
I think one also has to have more than a fair share of empathy and an ability to impart information to clients in a way that gives them comfort during what is usually an incredibly difficult journey for them.
What is the best career advice you ever received? Who gave it to you?
My mentor and husband always said to me: “He [or she] who is prepared, wins.” I find this holds true in so many situations — be it a negotiation (and having all the facts at one’s disposable and being able to find a solution that has merit for both sides) or a litigation process, where preparedness is key. In fact, in life preparedness can be the key to success or failure in so many situations.
What mistake have you made that ended up teaching you an important lesson on how to do your job better?
Procrastination is my kryptonite [the one weakness of someone who is otherwise invulnerable; an achilles heel].
You became an advocate, but chose to step down and become an attorney again after you had your family. Was this a difficult decision for you to make?
I was at the bar for a short period, but due to family constraints I elected to go back to the side bar.
I see it more as a sideways step than a step down. The two professions work together in a mutually beneficial way.
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