Heather McKinnon
Mon, August 22, 2011 at 18:30
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Heather McKinnon, Interesting, Person, Ray Rixon, Raymond Mather

The most interesting person Ray Rixon knows is Heather McKinnon, a senior family lawyer with Slater and Gordon in town.  Ray doesn’t know Heather from court, he knows her through yoga.  She is very dedicated to yoga and has been for years he explains.  I’ve been looking forward to meeting this yogic lawyer, but find a more substantial and complex person than the image those words had initially conjured.

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Not Your Average Small Town Lawyer

Heather McKinnon seems just a bit scary.  When she greets me at Slater & Gordon she looks imposing:  large in size, dressed in black for her morning in court, and clearly sharp as a tack.  As we talk, Coffs Harbour’s most formidable family lawyer tells me her role models growing up were Indira Ghandi, Golda Meyer and Margaret Thatcher.  “They played no girls games,” Heather tells me with a grin.  “No stilettos, no bullsh*t.”  I like this tough woman with the big smile, but I would definitely want her on my side of the bench.

The people of Coffs have wanted Heather on their side since she was 23 years old, when she and first husband David moved up from the bright lights of Sydney to establish a commercial law practice 27 years ago.   She and David met at Macquarie Uni Law School and were then recruited to prestigious and demanding Sydney firm Malleson’s.  Three years later they arrived in Coffs looking for a lifestyle change.  “We were swamped with work,” says Heather.   Women in particular flocked to Heather.  “I started to get phone calls from women saying, ‘I want a woman lawyer; I’m going through a divorce.’” So Heather began to take on family law cases as well as her commercial work.  The practice flourished.  It’s not everyday that two of the best and the brightest set up shop in a small town, so the firm’s expansion to 25 staff within 5 years is probably not surprising.

Rapid expansion always exacts a toll, but the price for Heather was higher than anyone should expect to pay.  In 1991 Heather’s husband David took his own life, Heather was 29.  There had been signs of mental illness since early in their marriage and part of the reason for the move to Coffs was to reduce David’s stress levels.  Concerns became serious eighteen months earlier when David fell into a deep depression, and decided to separate from Heather.  But nothing prepares you for the swiftness and finality of suicide.  “My life fell apart,” explains Heather.  “I don’t know how I got through that period.  The pressures and responsibilities were overwhelming while I was dealing with grief.”

The most overwhelming pressure was to keep the practice from going bankrupt.  “If you go bankrupt as a lawyer you can continue to practice law but it’s very difficult because bankruptcy is seen as a form of professional impairment,” Heather explains.  She found herself negotiating with the banks in a post 80s crash environment, while she dealt with the loss of her husband and her own sense of guilt. Heather says it was her staff and friends, some professional help, yoga and a lot of self-help books that got her and her practice through.  But I sense her own strength and innate resilience played an important part in her recovery and enabled her to emerge stronger and wiser.  When I ask whether the experience made her harder she surprises me with her response.  “I think it probably made me much more compassionate,” she says.  “My view is nobody knows what’s going to happen to them and you can’t be black and white.  You’ve got to roll with the punches.”  

Rolling with the punches has worked for Heather.  She came through 3 years mired in grief to discover Will sitting beside her on a plane home from Cairns.  They clicked immediately, married soon after and bought 5 acres at Friday Creek, where they still live with their two sons.  “We have chooks and fruit trees and basically we live a very grounded rural life,” says Heather.  Her personal life may be grounded, but Heather’s legal career continues to be high flying and that too, she owes in part to her husband Will.  “He made the decision when we had kids to be a stay at home father,” explains Heather.  “I never would have been able to pursue my career at this level without him.”

And Heather pursued her career with vigour.  She completed specialist accreditation in family law, and in 1996, with the birth of her first son, merged her practice with Fishburn Watson and O’Brien who wanted to establish a family law division.  Without the pressures of managing her own practice Heather was able to balance life with young children.  “The boys come in and out when they were babies and I ran my own show.  It worked beautifully.”  Ten years later her feet started to itch and she moved to a new partnership which 18 months later merged with Slater & Gordon.  “So I’m part of the first publicly listed law firm in the world and I supervise out of Coffs the entire NSW family law team.”

Family law can be rough on the soul.  Heather says she is still affected by her court case earlier this morning.  “I know why people have to go through the trial by fire of divorce.  I know that it leads to growth, but I just see so much pain,” Heather says.  I wonder aloud how she manages to cope with the pain day in and day out.  “I get actively involved in things that are trying to strengthen the community, because divorce shatters it,” she replies.  So Heather restores her spirit by working with the young actors studio, teaching at Southern Cross University, pulling together a training day on gender issues as part of the Coast Out gay and lesbian festival, sitting on the board of the National Marine Science Centre.

Heather has been a family lawyer in a small town for too many years not to have accumulated more than her fair share of detractors and down right enemies.  She admits that she polarises people.  But I’m starting to sense which side I’m going to fall on.  Okay – she’s still a bit daunting, but you’ve got to admit she’s inspiring.  When she tells me her favourite TV show is Mad Men I am fully convinced….Heather McKinnon is my kind of woman!

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Click here to find out what makes Heather angry…

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Heather is quick to nominate Raymond Mather as the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  He’s new to the Coast, but has been friends with Heather since they went to high school together in Tamworth.  She gets quite excited talking about Ray’s achievements.  He was Sonya Kruger’s dancing partner when they won the Pacific Ballroom Dance competition, choreographed Strictly Ballroom, was shortlisted for the Moran Portraiture Prize: “Everything he touches is creative.”  I think Raymond is going to be a good one!

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