Sunday, May 23, 2010

Being a family lawyer

In the third (and, for now at least, final) post in this series I wanted to look at what is involved in actually practising family law. The pedantic reader may think it odd that a post in a series entitled "Become a Family Lawyer" should deal with life after qualifying but, as I said in the first post in the series, anyone wishing to be a family lawyer must understand the nature of the work before they embark on their career. Besides, there is far more to being a family lawyer than merely qualifying, as I said in the second post.

I suppose that this post should start by asking exactly what type of family law work you want to deal with, and the first question is: Do you want to be an all-rounder or a specialist? An all-rounder would typically spend most of their time dealing with divorce, ancillary relief, children disputes, domestic violence and cohabitee disputes, with the first three of those likely to occupy them most. The advantage of being an all-rounder is, of course, the variety of the work, although paradoxically the work can be quite repetitive and mundane, especially dealing with divorce itself.

There is, however, scope for specialisation within family law. Perhaps the most common two examples are those family lawyers who deal exclusively (or at least mainly) with ancillary relief claims for high net worth clients, and those who specialise in public law children matters. Both types of work can be extremely rewarding (although not necessarily from a pecuniary point of view, in the case of public law work), but you do need to ensure that you are the right type of person to do the work. This is particularly so for public law children work, which can be extremely 'gritty', and is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Another, related, question that you will have to ask yourself is: Do I want to do legal aid work? This will obviously have a bearing upon the type of work you do, but be warned: you will be spending vast amounts of your time in form-filling and bureaucracy rather than fee-earning, and the rates of pay are abysmal, which is likely to have a direct impact upon your own remuneration. Having said that, there are many devoted family lawyers who are motivated by a genuine desire to help the most needy in society, and are prepared to put up with these drawbacks, usually doing a mix of private and legal aid work, to make up their fee income.

Moving on, I would recommend membership of the appropriate family lawyers' association, providing access to news, learning (see below) and other benefits. All barristers practising family law are encouraged to join the Family Law Bar Association, which organises conferences, seminars, meetings and social events for its members. For family law solicitors, legal executives and paralegals there is Resolution, formerly the Solicitors Family Law Association, which offers similar services but also requires its members to follow a Code of Practice that promotes a non-confrontational approach to family disputes.

You may also wish to join an appropriate accreditation scheme, such as the Law Society's Family Law Panel or Children Panel. Membership of such a scheme indicates the lawyer's expertise in that particular area of work, which has obvious marketing benefits and, with regular membership renewals, ensures that that level of expertise is retained.

Which brings me on to the penultimate matter I want to discuss: continuing education. A certain level of 'Continuous Professional Development' ('CPD') is compulsory for all barristers, solicitors and legal executives and is usually met by attending seminars. Seminars primarily deal with new developments in law and procedure. However, I would suggest that all family lawyers should do more to keep abreast than just meet the basic CPD requirement. I would recommend subscribing to a periodical such as Jordans' monthly Family Law. There are also now a large number of free family law resources available on the internet, many of which are linked to in my own Family Lore Focus, with its weekly Newsletter.

The last thing that I want to discuss is what I will call the emotional aspect of the work. Family lawyers deal with huge issues in their clients' lives: not just marriage and money but the entire futures of separating couples and children. This knowledge alone would make the work stressful, but the stress can be multiplied many fold by the clients themselves, who may be in a severe state of distress or may wish to use you as a conduit to direct their anger at their former partners. Be prepared both for tearful clients and clients who will not be satisfied unless you conduct the matter in the most inappropriate fashion (which you will, of course, refuse to do). Also be prepared for the frustrations of delay and for unsatisfactory outcomes - matters are often resolved by compromise solutions that can leave some clients less than happy. I'm not saying that there aren't (non-pecuniary) rewards to doing family law work (there are), but I'm sure there are times in the lives of all family lawyers when they question exactly why they chose to do the work.

If I have not put you off becoming a family lawyer then: Good Luck!

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