Episode 41 27 September 2021
Gently guiding clients through end-of-life planning
Attorney, notary, conveyancer and administrator of deceased estates
Rhiannon Thomas is an attorney, notary, conveyancer and administrator of deceased estates in practice in Cape Town. She is also a values consultant and accredited Conscious Contracts® provider and trainer. Rhiannon founded Milkwood in 2012 with a mission to bring a more expansive, personal and meaningful approach to Antenuptial Contracts, Cohabitation Agreements and Wills through inter-disciplinary collaboration. Rhiannon came to this work knowing from an early point in her career that she was different from other lawyers. Her willingness to do things differently led her to develop a compassionate and holistic approach that serves clients meaningfully.
Rhiannon Thomas has two decades of legal experience. She is an attorney, notary, conveyancer and administrator of deceased estates in practice in Cape Town. She is also a values consultant and accredited Conscious Contracts® provider and trainer.
Additionally, Rhiannon founded Milkwood in 2012. Her mission was to bring a more expansive, personal and meaningful approach to Antenuptial Contracts, Cohabitation Agreements and Wills through inter-disciplinary collaboration.
At Milkwood, Rhiannon collaborates with other professionals to offer a wider range of services.
Rhiannon says she has found her tribe in the Integrative Law movement. Her vision is to offer the best, most meaningful encounter that a person can have with the law and a lawyer; to work collaboratively with other professionals; to inspire other lawyers to reassess the way in which they practise law and serve their clients; and to take Milkwood’s methods into mainstream legal practice by providing training and workshops.
She works internationally and is based in Cape Town, South Africa.
[2:25] Rhiannon relates how her decision to do things differently came from a childhood growing up in South Africa and realising that the system of apartheid was essentially a lie accepted by society.
[6:01] After struggling to fit in as a young law student and articled clerk, she shifted to academia and found it was yet another conformist system.
[8:46] From attending an empathy course for health science students, Rhiannon saw that skills of compassion and empathy could be taught, and learned.
[11:23] When two friends with terminal illnesses separately approached Rhiannon to help draft their wills, Rhiannon realised that she wasn't equipped to have difficult conversations around dying and contacted a psychologist.
[15:50] Out of this was borne her new approach and her consultancy, Milkwood. Rhiannon works with mental health professionals and has developed an approach to really get to know her wills clients.
[18:18] Rhiannon has also developed a unique way of working with couples on antenuptial contracts, which involves working with a counsellor to delve into attitudes towards money and relationships.
[24:30] Rhiannon answers my question about what she would have thought as a demoralised law student if she could see the work she is doing now.
[27:06] Rhiannon talks about her introduction to the integrative law movement, where she immediately felt she had found her tribe.
[31:10] Rhiannon says she learns, grows and develops all the time, which is part of being an integrative lawyer.
[32:40] Rhiannon's vision is twofold - to continue to offer services to people that are based on integrative law principles and to inspire other lawyers to start changing their practice to benefit themselves and others.
Milkwood website: www.milkwoodlaw.co.za
Integrative law website
Conscious Contracts® website
J Kim Wright's book Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law
Linda Alvarez and her Discovering Agreement website
J Kim Wright interview on New Earth lawyer (Episode 1)
Amanda Lamond interview on New Earth lawyer (Episode 15)
Patrick Andrews interview on New Earth lawyer (Episode 11)
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the New Earth lawyer podcast. My name is Geraldine Johns-Putra. I'm a lawyer based in Melbourne, Australia. I'm speaking to you from Boonwurrung country. And so I'd like to pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. Today I'm speaking to Rhiannon Thomas. Rhiannon comes to us from Cape Town, South Africa. She has two decades of legal experience. She's an attorney, notary conveyancer and administrator of deceased estates at a practice in Cape Town. She's also a values consultant, and an accredited Conscious Contracts® provider and trainer. Rhiannon founded Milkwood in 2012. Her mission was to bring a more expansive personal and meaningful approach to ante-nuptial contracts, cohabitation agreements and wills through interdisciplinary collaboration, which means that she works with other professionals to offer a wider range of services. Rhiannon says she has found her tribe in the integrative law movement, which I have spoken about on this podcast before. So without further ado, Rhiannon, and I think we'll get into it and welcome you to this show and hear all about the myriad of things that you do as a practitioner and a consultant.
Thanks, Geraldine. It's really lovely to be here. And I'm very honoured to have been asked to participate in your podcast. I've been enjoying it and inspired by the other people that you've spoken to. So thank you for having me here.
We have a great range of people on this podcast, but they do have a few things in common, right, which is that the first thing in common is that they really do things differently from the norm, or what we've been trained as lawyers to do. So you know, let's start there for you. At what point did you decide that you were going to do things differently as a lawyer?
So I think the decision to do things differently just genuinely came about very early in my childhood, when I had the opportunity to travel with my parents, when I was eight, turning nine, and coming out of apartheid South Africa, where it was a very particular way of life and way of living, which I just accepted as that is how the world is and didn't really question a lot. And then through travelling to other countries, not just seeing people living in such different ways and in harmony with multiracial communities. And yeah, I mean, I think the racial, the racial differences were so stark to me coming out of South Africa, as a white South African. And I'm just seeing people of colour and other ethnicities during jobs that in South Africa were reserved for white people, and white people doing jobs that were reserved for non white people. And that made me really question the narrative of the society in which I was living and growing up, and that actually it was all a story that we were being told, rather than fact, or truth or reality. And very early on, I started to question how systems work, what underpins them and why people are doing the things they do.
So fast forward to law school. And I arrived at law school, very, very socially minded, wanting to make a difference in society, help people find justice, all those very laudable principles, and then realised that law school was nothing like that. And actually, it was all about becoming part of the system. And that in fact, our training was to turn us into a sausage at the end of the sausage machine, and become either an attorney or an advocate or something and prop up the system. And so I went through law school and I went into the system and in South Africa, we have to do a training for two years in order to become an attorney, it's called articles of clerkship. And so off I went to a medium sized law firm, which was quite traditional. And, yeah, it was quite an eye opener to see what being a lawyer was meant to be. And it just didn't sit very well with me. And so I started to feel very fraudulent, and very divided in my own identity. So I felt like every morning, I was getting dressed up to go and act in a play about being a lawyer. And it wasn't me at all. And it didn't reflect my personality and my values and those kinds of things. And, in fact, during that time, I had a breakdown in that I got to work one day, and I actually couldn't get out of my car, because I just couldn't do another day of being, not me.
And it really hit me then. So and then I thought, well, what what do you do if this is the system, and you just don't fit in, and people think you're a bit weird and different and and so the thought was, well, I could leave, which I think a lot of people do. Or I can try some other aspects of the system. And so I did do that. And I went into work at the university and tried to craft something there. But that's another system of also, you know, a particular way of being. And I'm a doer, I like to be out in the world, meeting people and doing things and academia felt a little bit too much like a cut off from people except for the teaching, which I absolutely love, and inspiring your students to sort of be themselves rather than to kind of, you know, totally throw themselves into this machine. And yeah, so then I set up my own practice. And that was when that was before Milkwood, that my vision at that stage was to be a different kind of lawyer and make people feel comfortable and accepted and not intimidated by the legal system. And yeah, and then I suppose as as time has passed, and I found more courage to step out and be very different. That's come over time. As I found the integrative law movement, actually, and realised I'm not the only one, there are other people out there. And actually, I'm not weird. They're all weird. I think that's, that's the journey.
Yeah, it's one that I've heard a few times. And really, I resonate with that as well. I was going to, before you brought up the word courage, I was going to ask you about that. Because when we tell these narratives, over a few years of how we went from being a certain kind of lawyer to realising that we didn't want to just fall into the system, etc, we just tell it like it happened quite naturally. But just like that incident, you relate, related when you were in the car, and you just couldn't move, because like something in you had broken down. There are many moments that I think happen to people like us who just don't, can't work in the system anymore, because there's too much dissonance. And it's not easy. And so I actually wanted to bring that out, like you needed to build up that courage. It came from many, many moments, of saying, I will do it differently.
Yeah, and there were other moments, of course, and some of them were being exposed to a course that was run by the Health Science faculty where they were teaching empathy and compassion to Health Science students. And a lightbulb went on and I realised well, you can actually learn empathy. Imagine, imagine if lawyers were taught how to be more empathic, and how to have better social skills and things like that. So that was a lightbulb moment for me and that I could learn those skills. And then, you know, through some experiences of very close friends and the loss of a very, very close friend who was, I call her a soul sister. I also realised that certain areas of the law like wills, particularly, are so dry and formulaic that they actually don't allow a person to really engage with what's the, well, the elephant in the room which is there. And then my own experiences of loss and feeling. Hitting rock bottom and wondering, what what is my purpose? And what is my role? And I think the biggest thing for me was that I decided to stay in law, change it from the inside. So I feel a little bit subversive in the things that I do.
And that's a journey too, as to starting to realise where you might place yourself best to make those changes. So I tried it from within a large law firm, it was very hard. There was a journey there. Now I'm trying it from outside. In my own practice, like you also, I find it's actually easier on my own, just being able to make an impact. But it comes with a lot of learning through and throughout a lot of experiences. I'm glad you touched on the wills, because I wanted to ask you about that. I've spoken to many people, many lawyers on this show about different practices that make up the integrative law movement. And I've spoken to collaborative family practitioners, I've spoken to people who are mediating disputes in in a very novel way, I have spoken to Kim Wright on Conscious Contracts®. And I really wanted to hear from you about the wills and estates, like how you do that differently.
So initially, that also came out of a story and an experience where I did draft the will for a friend of mine, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And he phoned me up and he said, Rhiannon, I'm going to die, and I need you to come and do a will for me. And it was quite a shock, actually, and I've been doing wills for a long time. To have someone who said that. Because most people, when they came to do their will, talked about their death as if it was some sort of future event that might happen. And then in my own life, I've experienced quite a lot of grief and loss. And part of that was just this, learning that the will wasn't really much actually, in that everything that you lose, you lose so much, you lose the person and their stories, and those are the things that you miss, rather than the money that you get or the one item and you're not sure why they left you that particular item, maybe without a story to it, or something like that. So then, and then in that very same space of time, it was in a period of a month, another friend who was diagnosed with cancer. And that wasn't actually, was in denial to be, you know, frank about it, and didn't think that she was going to die. But still, because she was a conscientious person felt that she should do her will and do some planning and that kind of thing. And doing those two wills, I realised how poorly equipped I was, with my own skills, to assist them properly, to have proper conversations about what they actually wanted to happen after they died.
And so I yeah, I thought this was an opportunity for these two people who weren't old, to do something more, you know, for their loved ones and the ones who are left behind and also for just to find out information, so to ask hard questions, that assume that a person, that the person that you're talking to who's alive and you know, they're with you, isn't going to be there with you in a few months' time. And it was really hugely emotive for me. And so I reached out to somebody who was more comfortable in that space, who worked with people who were in the process of dying, assisting them to die in a way that was right for them, and their family. And so I approached her and said, would you work with me on wills so that we can have those difficult conversations, so that I can get the information that I need? And we can also offer them the opportunity to do something more than just the legal document. We've got them and they're there because they know they have to do their will. It's something you have to do. But then we could offer them this opportunity to do something more meaningful for their family, life. And maybe someday to see work or to write letters or those kinds of things. And so that's the service that I offer at the moment and it's particularly aimed at people who have a knowledge in a way, I mean, you know that they're going to die, to feel comfortable in a safe space where they can actually speak about their fears and their hopes for the future, when they aren't in it.
That's quite remarkable. And we were talking about this before we started recording, you do that through Milkwood, which is this multidisciplinary practice, where you have the other professionals the care workers, psychologists, and so on. And you couldn't do that, you couldn't run that practice as a law firm in South Africa.
No, so how our rules for practice works is that if you are an attorney, you have to work only with other attorneys. In fact, you're not really even supposed to share office space with someone who isn't an attorney. So to get around that, the idea of Milkwood was created, which isn't a law firm, but it's a consultancy or collaboration between other professionals. And so in that way, I could still do the legal work. And then also work together with generally a mental health professional. So our sessions are collaborative sessions, a bit like collaborative law, in that with the client, there will be, there'll be myself and my colleague, and the person who does the will with me, Dianne Berger, and then the client, or the client and their spouse or family, you know, we can be very flexible about who comes along. And then she helps to hold the space to create a safe space. And it helps me as well, because I feel held. And you know, the traditional way of doing it is just somebody contacts you for a will and you send them your form, and it says, well, what's your name and where do you live? And what assets do you have? And those kinds of things. So we also ask some other questions. So in all my Milkwood wills, I have a getting-to-know-you form, which doesn't ask any questions about assets or things like that. And we've come up with five questions that help us to get to know the client and also allow the client to reflect on what it is that they need from the process.
And so you separately practise as an attorney with a law practice in Cape Town, and then you're running two, basically two jobs, side by side. And Milkwood also does these ante-nuptial contracts, I'm very interested in those. So you're doing wills and deceased estates plus you're working with couples.
So those two documents are quite connected in that when people get married, often they're, you know, have to change their will and in South Africa, only a notary can draw an ante-nuptial contract and sign it off. So that's one of my additional qualifications, is that I'm a notary. But how the system in South Africa works is that our default matrimonial property system is in community of properties. So you share everything with your spouse, and although it has a lot of advantages for people who might not have a lot of assets, because they then have to share everything. As soon as people start acquiring assets and sort of building up their estates, it can become a difficult regime. The difficult thing about the ante-nuptial contract or as it's also called a prenup in the US.
Is that it has to be agreed and signed before you get married. So you have to have a conversation before you get married about how your estate will be regulated by the law in the future. And what was happening is I was doing those in my law firm, and realising that the couples who were coming to have these conversations had all sorts of issues around money and their, you know, the story of money in their family of origin, some of them have come out of families where there've been horrible divorces. And now they have to, you know, start talking about how they're going to share things with their spouse. However, they're in a good space because they're about to get married. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to actually have a deeper conversation around how things would work in the marriage. Whereas the ante-nuptial contract focuses only on two points, the point from the start, at the start of the marriage, and at the end of the marriage. So that's all that it focuses on. What will happen at the beginning, and what will happen at the end.
And I was like, well, there could be, you know, there are years and years in between that, and actually, many relationships in my experience of doing some family law, which I moved away from, because I found it so emotionally stressful, but my experience of being that money can be the reason, one of the major reasons why relationships end, because the necessary conversations aren't had and people aren't on the same page and that kind of thing. So it felt like this was a perfect opportunity to say to a couple, why don't we go a little bit deeper, and look at your values and your hopes for your future relationship, the story of your family of origin. Yeah, what your vision is for your marriage, or your relationship, civil union, whatever kind of partnership they were entering into, and then look a bit more deeply and again, realising well, I didn't actually have those skills, and I'm a big fan of therapy, I've been in therapy for many years and I love it. And it's helped me to grow and develop as a person. And so you know, that's the person that I need, the person who can talk about the feelings in a way that's helpful, and non, you know, sort of helpful, and can actually get the couple to really engage. And so that was the idea, then, okay, I'm going to collaborate with a psychologist. Or at the moment, so initially, it was with a psychologist who worked with couples, and she's very busy in her practice. So the person that I work with now is a social worker who works with couples. And we have such, it's such fun actually, with the couples. It's really, really lovely.
I'm sure. So are people coming to you, because they know you offer this kind of service, or they're coming to you expecting just to do a will or an ante-nuptial. And then they find out that you are much more?
No, I don't, I don't do that.
You don't surprise them and say we're going to talk about your feelings today, you thought this was about your ante-nuptial.
So they do come, they come knowing that this is what they're signing up for. And we give them an info sheet, which you know, is very different to the standard info sheet. And most of them, so it's been interesting, because initially, the clients were were very particular kind of clients, most people who have either had, come out of a marriage, and were entering into a second one, or a lot of same sex couples. Because I feel that they've had to, they've had to do a bit more emotional work around being a couple and living in a world that is very heteronormative. And so they were very open to doing things differently. But over the last five years, as younger people who are having, I am just a great fan of young people, who are, you know, know about values and know about sort of having a vision, and really want to create something positive. And there's been a lot more of that. But it is all word of mouth or talking to someone or saying you know, you could do it a bit differently and and then coming coming that way. Yeah, but I think people don't actually know that it's an option a lot of the time and that's what I'm trying to do at the moment with Milkwood with my blog, and you know, social media is to try and educate people that there is another way. And that can actually be really beneficial.
So if we take you back to that law student, and showed you the vision of what you are today and the kind of work you do today, what would you have thought as the law student?
That's a great question. I think I would have felt that I, cause I felt like I shouldn't really be a lawyer. I always felt a bit of a fraud. And people I mean, some people couldn't believe I was a lawyer. They were determined to call me an architect. I was, I'm not, you know, when they met they couldn't remember, aren't you an architect? No, I'm a lawyer. Maybe architects are more different and arty or something. And then oh yes, I forgot, it's almost like they couldn't compute that. And so I did feel in law school, I loved the intellectual rigour and I love that stuff, but I didn't feel like there was a place for me. And I think if someone had come to me then and shown me what I'm doing now, I think I would have felt more comfortable in myself, I could do something that would feel authentic. But it's an interesting question, because, of course, all the experiences over time and that feeling of not belonging, and not really fitting in are part of the reason why I do what I do today. So it's a great question.
That path, finding the way, the next step or what's the next step, sometimes you turn a hard left, and you come back, and so on. I've done plenty of those.
I've done that as well.
Oh, yeah. Tell us about the integrative law movement. You mentioned how that really helped you feel more like a lawyer and more like you've found your tribe.
So up until I heard about the integrative law movement, I felt like I was very alone in what I was doing. And people thought I was a bit weird. And I felt quite judged by colleagues. They didn't really get what I was doing. And yeah, so I felt quite alone and a bit of an outlier. But I was very, but I had an inner inner conviction that I wanted to align my work with my values, because I couldn't live feeling like two different people. So for me, that sort of feeling of being in alignment was a really struggle. And then in 2012, 2012 was a hugely pivotal year in my life, and in 2012, another lawyer, here in Cape Town, Amanda, who has spoken to you, Amanda Lamond.
Contacted me. And she said, you know I've been trying to find a lawyer who's done a Woman Within, which is a sort of women's personal development course. And you're the only person that I can find. And I'd love to chat to you about the use of integrating personal development into legal practices. And so I met with her and she'd been feeling very similar in her journey. But had done a lot more sort of looking around and found that there were these other people and had found Kim Wright. And she said, I'm going to bring Kim to South Africa. And I'm going to hold a conference. And as Amanda does, she just decided she's going to do this huge thing. And then she pulls it off, it's quite phenomenal. And so she did do that and gathered all these lawyers who came to meet Kim and hear what she had to say. And on the day that Kim arrived in Cape Town, Amanda was unable to fetch her from the airport. So she sent me off to, I volunteered to go and fetch Kim. I was feeling quite intimidated. And well off I went to the airport to go and fetch her in my very old car. Like she's gonna think I'm, you know, what's she gonna think, I've got this terrible car? And anyway I found Kim, and she got in the car, and we loaded all her luggage into my tiny little car, and we had some time to kill. So we went for coffee. And it was like coming home talking to her. And we connected so wonderfully, and she has that wonderful nurturing energy of, sort of, I feel like you know, that mother energy and she just, yeah, she just said to me, but what you've been doing the last few years, it has a name, it's called integrative law. And there are other people who do it. And here's a whole book called Lawyers as Peacemakers that I've written about this area of law, and you know, you could be in this book kind of thing. And it was, it gives me shivers talking about it, it was the most wonderful thing, and meeting Kim made me realise I wasn't alone. And then it also gave me even more courage to say, you know what, I'm actually doing something that's valuable and good for me. It's good for clients, it's good for the planet. It builds better relationships, it makes people happier. And yeah, and then from then on, I kind of sailed and then on Conscious Contracting® has always been, you know, using values and using vision had been something that I had been using in my work. So to find that and then I had a call with Linda Alvarez or now Alannah, and we, yeah, it was another coming home moment. She was busy writing her book Discovering Agreement. And we chatted about that. And I was like, these are my people. These are my lawyers. Yeah.
I know. When I met you, it was on a trip to the UK when you were living there. And I met Patrick Andrews on that same trip, and I've had him on this show. And I met a few other people who are connected to the B Corporation movement. And I remember that trip. And it was a very similar thing. It was this realisation that there was a whole world that was opening up to me. And Kim of course had made the introduction to you and to Patrick. This whole world opening up to me, that was kind of in colour, as opposed to the black and white that I'd been existing in. And it was like, oh, my goodness, I can exist and thrive and be myself and grow, develop this incredible path and purpose here. Yeah.
Absolutely. It is a development. And it is a growth. Yesterday for the very first time, I went for a walk with my client, inspired by Patrick, who takes his clients on walks, because he lives in New Forest, and it's a beautiful day. So my client arrived and I said, are you up for us walking rather than sitting in my office? And she was like, yes, absolutely. And so off we went, and we spent an hour walking and sitting and walking and talking. And yeah, so you know, I did something brand new yesterday. And I think that's part of being an integrative lawyer is just continuously, you know, you're open to doing things a little bit differently. And she actually said, I'm not surprised we're going for a walk, I know, you're not the usual kind of lawyer.
That's a compliment.
And it was a wonderful way to have a consultation, we just went to the park, there's a local park. And we looked at the flowers, and we saw the dogs and we you know, it was, it was lovely. And it was a very emotive conversation because she was coming to talk to me about things and her family, and she's had a lot of loss and death. And so it was so beautiful to be in this natural space to just be mindful of the world around us and nature.
So what do you see coming up for yourself with Milkwood?
Yeah, so my, I mean, my vision is really twofold in a way. On one side is to offer services to people that are different and based on integrative law. And then the other side is to inspire other lawyers to start changing their practice because it's so beneficial for oneself, inside. You know, your life changes when you start building alignment between who you are and what you do, and the kinds of service that you offer. And so that's really, is my big vision is to is to bring about some change within the legal system by inspiring lawyers to do things a bit differently. And I hope that that is where I'm headed with my clients because I feel like I learned as I said, I learn every day from them, and from the processes we do. And just yesterday going walking, you know, that was just such a great experience. And, yeah, so I think that's where, where I'm going hopefully, hopefully it'll open up to that.
I'm sure it'll unfold perfectly. Rhiannon, thank you for being on the show. Thank you so much. It's been amazing chatting to you and catching up with you again and hearing all that you've been doing.
Thank you Yeah, it's been a real privilege to be here and and also it's been, it's so lovely to see you and the person that I met in Oxford to this year. I mean, you were glowing then but you're now glowing and radiant and just you look so at peace. And it's lovely to see that and honour your journey as well.