The Lidcombe office of the Women’s Legal Service of NSW is a rabbit warren of offices in an unglamorous, two-storey red brick house in a suburban street. Helen Campbell, CEO of the service, shows its newest board member, Heather McKinnon, into the kitchen and makes tea. McKinnon, 55, runs the NSW family law practice for Slater and Gordon from Coffs Harbour and also works as an Independent Children’s Lawyer (ICL) fighting for the best interests of the child in parental disputes. Marriage breakups, parenting arrangements and property settlements are her bread and butter, along with care and protection orders. McKinnon is the first to admit she has to work hard not to be consumed by the sadness and gravity of some of the cases. “It has to be about the kids,” McKinnon says. “Time is love and so often I see families fall apart due to a lack of time for each other.” The eldest of four children from Tamworth, McKinnon started practice at Mallesons Stephen Jaques in 1981 before moving to Coffs Harbour to “opt in” to country practice and build a firm with 20 staff. She later joined another Coffs Harbour firm and in 2008 joined Slater and Gordon. McKinnon is concerned about delays in the Family Court and the Family Law Division as well as budget restraints affecting psychiatric reports in relation to children and parents fighting for custody. She tells JANE SOUTHWARD about her life in the law.
“I was the only woman lawyer in Coffs Harbour when we moved here in 1984 and I used to get phone calls saying, ‘My husband has just left me, what do I do?’ I had been trained as a commercial lawyer and started doing mostly property work until these calls came in. You could say I fell into family law, but I have developed an absolute passion for it. A lot of women say they want a female lawyer to handle their divorce.
I grew up in Tamworth and moved to Sydney for university. Mallesons Stephen Jaques was the most brilliant place to train but in my team there were two women with babies who would come into the once at 7am and they would leave at 7pm. Even as a young woman I couldn’t make sense of it. When you are raised in the bush, Sydney is a crazy place to live.
My interest in the field when I am working with kids is informed by the experience with my first husband, David. David was from Inverell and we met in our first week at Macquarie University. It was your classic country kids’ love story.