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How To Get Started In Family Law

Once a person is licensed to practice law, that person can practice in any area, regardless of background or specialty. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is ridiculous. Lawyers specialize in different areas of the law based on their experience, their passion, and the needs of the public at large.

As a client, it’s important to be aware of a lawyers’ expertise outside of his or her license; it’s even more important for you as a legal professional to choose an area of the law that you can genuinely claim he or she specializes in. If you’re interested in becoming a family lawyer, the first step toward gaining that expertise is to dive into the fundamentals of family law.

Why Become a Family Law Lawyer?

Few lawyers are drawn to family law right out of the gate, and the demands of the marketplace are what usually takes them there. Divorce and child custody are, unfortunately, types of legal cases that will always be around, which means that family law ranks in the top 10 law careers strictly in terms of salary earnings. While it may sound callous for lawyers to find themselves in family law for reasons like this, the nuances and special skills required to be a successful family law lawyer can be difficult to develop. People suited to a career in family law are often excellent negotiators who can keep themselves emotionally removed from the intense feelings and dramatic outbursts of their clients. As much as people fall in love, they fall out of love just as often, so thankfully there are patient mediators out there with a legal education.

Other lawyers set out to mend broken families and to help children heal. The legal system is a forum where families in turmoil can achieve resolution and reconciliation with the assistance of a legal professional; these family law lawyers are often found in legal aid agencies or working privately. The experience that comes with this line of work will often give lawyers in the field a “social worker” kind of perspective that affords them sensitivity and empathy in times where lawyers in other fields may simply be thinking by the books.

Family Law as it Exists on Paper

Family law in any state is usually governed by a single section of the state statutes and in a general sense will usually be very similar from state to state.  The first step in learning about family law is to read these marriage and family statutes; most will be fairly straightforward and easy to read and will only run about 30 to 50 pages long.  Why so short? There are other codes and laws in each state that govern how the substantive law actually gets applied in addition to these overarching guidelines.  This may be the state’s code of civil procedure, a specific code of civil procedure for family law, or a series of supreme court and local court rules.  Often, all of these smaller rules will apply simultaneously in a confusing manner.

After you’ve reviewed the basic rules of family law in your state, you’ll find that West/Thompson and/or Lexis Nexis publishes a practice guide for each state.  This practice guide will discuss family law in the state in broader, more organic terms.  Common sense chapters like, “Alimony” and “Parenting Time” will discuss each of those subjects in the broadest sense while quoting specific statutes and applicable case law.

Upon doing the necessary reading described above, you should have a good theoretical grasp of what family law is and how it’s applied in your state.  Of course, knowing a subject theoretically is never enough. It will be necessary to observe some actual family law litigation.

The Power of Observation

Going to a local courthouse and finding the courtroom devoted to domestic relations cases will give you a taste for what family law lawyers do on a day-to-day basis.  

Trials are public affairs; simply ask a domestic relations judge’s clerk if any good trials are coming up.  The clerks will always know a good trial on the horizon and be happy to share. You are likely to see several status dates where the lawyers are giving the judge a brief update of the case and you are likely to see a hearing on one or two contested matters.  The lawyers in all these situations will be trying to educate the judge on the facts and the law relevant to the case.  While they are educating the judge, let them educate you by proxy.  Most of what the lawyers say will be impossible to follow because you have no context as to the broader issues and facts in the case. Obtaining the name of the case and possibly the case number will provide you with a full disclosure.

After you have the case number and you’ve heard a bit about the issues, you can go to the county clerk’s office and request to see the file for that case.  Family law cases are almost always available for perusal by the public unless someone has requested that the file be sealed (which is rare). The case will contain everything filed by all parties.

A family law court file is a wonderful way to learn how the practice of law operates as it operates in a completely linear fashion – the story of the case is told logically, describing the parties’ desires and conflicts as they arise. In fact, this is how (in theory) the judge him or herself learns about the case.

A family law court file will have the initial pleadings which lay out what each party is seeking from the court and a brief description of the facts as each party perceives them.  A flurry of temporary petitions and orders will follow – motions for temporary support, temporary parenting time, and other matters that must be resolved before the judge makes his or her final rulings.  These temporary petitions will have much more detail as to the facts of the case and will cite more law in doing so.

Family law tends to be much more casual compared to other areas of civil litigation.  Evidence exhibits that are presented in a hearing will not be filed and may not appear in the court file.  Typically, the lawyers just come to a casual agreement as to what will be presented or not; if the lawyers don’t agree, they make oral objections as to whether the proposed evidence is admissible in court or not.

This issue of discovery and evidence is so central to family law because half of all family law cases are about financial issues: division of debts and assets, alimony and child support. In a court case where the facts are disputed, the truth is found through evidence which is obtained via discovery.  For example: a husband’s income may be in dispute, so his wife may choose to subpoena the bank for the husband’s bank records.  The clerk’s court file is not going to contain thousands of pages of bank records, only references to the ones necessary and relevant to the matter at hand. Many family law lawyers enter the field to help families in peril and find themselves acting as a glorified accountant half the time.

Working Under an Established Family Lawyer

To gain familiarity with the financial aspects of a divorce case, one must eventually work on a case of their own.  Working for a family law practitioner is the preferable means of immersing yourself in this last and final step of family law mastery.

In good economic times, family law lawyers are always hiring law clerks and associates.  When house prices and 401k values are increasing, people finally feel secure enough to get divorced.  Divorce lawyers will need law clerks and associates for the one thing you cannot learn independently: to sift through discovery.

Reviewing years of bank accounts and financial documents might not sound like fun, but, with the right mindset, can be like an interesting combination of a homework assignment and a treasure hunt.  You will be organizing the documents in question and keeping track of the parties’ assets and debts on a spreadsheet.

While tabulating the parties’ assets and debts, you will be analyzing each parties’ spending and transfers in search of anything suspicious.  Did money get transferred to an account that wasn’t disclosed?  Did numerous cash withdrawals occur outside of a strip club? Did a secret recording device get purchased online? Where is that recording device now?  The answers will be more obvious than you think.

After you’ve reviewed those financial documents as a part of the discovery process, you will subsequently make your own requests to answer the questions that your discovery review brought to light – statements for an undisclosed bank account, or receipts from any unusual purchases.  

While resolving discovery, there may be numerous questions that cannot be answered by requests for more documents; these questions can only be answered by the party first-hand. For example, you may ask: “Why did you withdraw $500 every weekend outside of a strip club?”  To get these final answers, you conduct a deposition.

A deposition is a formal meeting with a court reporter where you ask one or both of the parties for sworn testimony in advance of trial.  A person’s word is evidence; a party can go on the record as to what happened with certain finances that have since disappeared.  This will be evidence to be considered by the court, just the same as if though there were physical receipts for everything.  A deposition allows a lawyer to confront the opposing party on a variety of issues to better understand how to take that party’s testimony in a possible trial.

Depositions are also used to determine parenting issues as there is rarely a paper trail for things like parenting time and parenting responsibility.  A deposition allows you to ask where an alcoholic parent drinks while watching the children, or whether or not the parent dropped the children off with their grandmother instead of spending time with them.

During the trial, all the issues are deciphered by the judge, all of the facts coming together and lead him or her to a final conclusion.  

Welcoming You With Open Arms

Upon reviewing both the theory of family law in your state as well as the practical functions of an actual family law case (or several), you will have a good grasp of what it means to be a family law lawyer and whether this specialty would be a good fit for you and your career.  No matter what path a lawyer takes to the family law field, we are always glad to have you – we definitely need the help!

Russell Knight has been licensed to practice law since 2006.  Russell Knight is both a family law lawyer in Chicago, Illinois and a family law lawyer in Naples, Florida.

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