Family law can be one of the most rewarding yet challenging careers in the legal field. This type of law includes all legal issues that come forward in family court or happen between family members. Being a family lawyer means you are trained to assist in managing legal problems that are borne out of family relationships. It is a wide-ranging legal field of expertise that addresses family issues and needs.
Family law, also sometimes known as matrimonial law, is the legal field where lawyers are trained to deal with family-integrated issues. They deal with in-office items such as family estates and wills along with contentious legal issues that will play out in the courtroom around divorce and domestic violence. The area covered is broad:
- Custody of minor children
- Spousal support payments
- Visitation rights
- Child Support Payments
- Property and Financial Settlements
- Child protection and welfare
- Domestic Violence issues
- Pre-nuptial agreements
- Surrogate agreements
- Juvenile law
Many family lawyers choose to work in multiple facets of this area of law whereas others choose to specialize in a specific area.
Job Description of a Family Lawyer
Being a family lawyer is not just about showing up in court to challenge a divorce or deal with a child custody issue. It is about advising a wide range of clients on their legal options. This includes vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and minors, not just husbands, wives and partners. Every family case varies given different people and circumstances. A family lawyer usually will need to address issues by:
- Working to resolve claims that are complex and can be addressed outside of the courtroom. Being able to use alternative dispute resolution in a skilled manner is a highly sought after ability.
- If alternative dispute resolution cannot be accomplished, then a family lawyer must be good in court. They are called to represent clients and must be able to carry out the duties that come with dispute resolution and litigation.
- Drafting documents, negotiate and review offers and counteroffers along with pleadings and witness statements.
- Be able to be a liaison with other professionals who are part of the family law process. Working with doctors, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, police, expert witnesses, and child protection services are all part of family law.
- Researching and discovering case law that is relevant to current situations and files being worked on.
- Examine and test evidence that can help a client. Make sure all avenues for a client are open so they have the best case outcome possible.
- Counsel and be empathetic in emotionally charged situations. Manage and steer the situation for your client.
Specific Things to be Dealt with as a Family Lawyer
Emancipation – Family lawyers will have to work through the court process when a minor wants to become self-supporting. This is when a teen wants to assume the adult responsibility that would normally fall on a parent in regard to the welfare of a minor. Emancipation releases a minor from the care of the parents so they can be responsible for themselves before they reach the age of majority.
Marital Property – This is the property that is acquired by either spouse during the time of the marriage. It is subject to be divided when a divorce happens.
Divorce – Working on a settlement plan with one of the goals being to avoid trial. It involves dividing marital property, sorting out spousal support, working on child custody proposals, parental and family visitation, etc. as needed.
Child Custody and Support – Family lawyers work on court orders and settlement agreements in regard to children of a couple. These can be ongoing issues as the parent’s financial, employment and living situations change.
Alimony – This is an allowance that is made by one partner in the marriage to the other. It is the support given during and after a separation or divorce occurs. This can be assessed to either spouse depending on income etc.
Paternity – The origin or descent from the father. It is important to determine paternity so there is clarity about the biological father of the child, especially when it comes to parental responsibility. It is often used to get child support from an absent parent.
Prenuptial Agreement – An agreement that is made before a couple gets married. It sets the limits to which a party can make a claim on the partner’s property should they divorce or die.
Adoption and Foster Care – This is an area that is complex and needs a family lawyer who can work through the different types of adoption, the child’s history, different state laws and other agencies that need to be included in child care and transfer.
If you are going to become a family lawyer, then be aware that other legal practice areas intersect with it. There may be criminal work if there is domestic or child abuse with criminal investigations, mediation and collaborative law, estate planning, and possibly immigration and naturalization law can all be involved. Knowing how all these paths cross is part of being a good family lawyer.
Related: What are the Different Types of Family Law?
Steps to Becoming a Family Lawyer
No matter what field of law that you want to go into, an undergraduate degree is needed. Some students take pre-law programs, but these are not a set requirement when applying to get into law school. The best tact for law school is to do an undergrad degree in criminal justice, criminology or government.
Law school admissions offices are going to be looking for transcripts that have courses highlighting writing skills and logic along with public speaking and an understanding of government. If a student is interested in family law, then taking courses based on psychology and sociology is helpful. Students can apply to law school while in their last year and while they are still working on their undergraduate courses.
The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) is a non-negotiable requirement if a student is going to get into law school. It is a standardized test that was created to evaluate a student’s ability to think logically and analytically. This test has five sections based on reading comprehension, analytical and logical reasoning that are multiple-choice.
Each section is open for 35 minutes only. This test is not one to be taken lightly. Top percentile scores offer a student a better opportunity for law school choice. Prep courses, studying and practice exams are all good ways to prepare for the LSAT.
Letters of Recommendation
It is important when working on an undergrad degree that the student has some connection with their professors. Law school admissions will be looking for letters of recommendation from professors who have personal knowledge of the student’s abilities and accomplishments.
Building relationships in an undergrad setting is good not only for law school references but after as well. Getting support from those who have watched a student study and participate can be a great strength when looking to attend law school.
Those who are admitted to law school usually earn their Juris Doctor (JD) in 3 years if going full-time. The Juris Doctor degree is also known as the Doctor of Jurisprudence degree and replaced the Bachelor of Law degree. It is what is earned when completing law school and is the primary professional preparation for lawyers. When students enter a school to obtain this degree, it needs to be a school that is accredited by the ABA (American Bar Association).
The first year of law school focuses on civil procedure, criminal and civil law contracts as well as property and constitutional law. Some, such as criminal law, property rights, and constitutional law will relate to family law as well. Courses around the legal process and writing for the law are also to be studied.
Once the student has advanced into the second and third year, then they can look at advanced level courses that specialize in family law. Learning about divorce, marriage and adoption are just a few of the topics. Students are also challenged to learn about court proceedings through mock court processes. These pretend proceedings are to help prepare for actual courtroom experiences.
While not every student is going to be at the top of their class, it is important to get the best marks possible early on. Law firms who are looking for the best and brightest will scope out students to see if they can make an offer early to get them onboard even before graduation.
This helps reduce the job search stress coming out of school. Having an offer on the table as a family lawyer can help build your CV. It may not be the final firm where you will end up, but it offers a solid start in the world of law that can lead to better offers later in your career.
The Bar Exam
This is another non-negotiable part of becoming a family lawyer. Just because a student graduates law school with a Juris Doctor, does not mean they are automatically allowed to practice law. Students must be in touch with their local board of bar examiners when they are in their last year of law school to find out what needs to be in place for them to take their bar exams.
Every state has its own legislature and laws and while many are remarkably similar in nature, it is important to check within the state that the student wants to practice. There is also a (UBE) Uniform Bar Examination that helps with cross-state practice. Some students choose to write more than one bar exam for entrance into the different state’s family law systems.
Related: Do You Have to go to Law School to Take the Bar Exam?
While experience is not a “required” part of being a family lawyer, it is going to go a long way in helping get a student where they need to be when they are ready to practice. Participating in family law clinics within the postgraduate school along with an internship can be greatly beneficial.
Learning how to interview clients, research case law and work through cases with clients (with supervision) is a great asset when it comes to getting a placement with a law firm. Internships are tough but can open many doors to future work.
Along with relevant experience, a good CV will make sure to highlight any relevant legal work and experience that students have had as a clerk or intern. Often any prior work, even if it is not as a student, is going to be a help when it comes to future employment.
Obtaining a Law License – The Bar Exam
This is a necessity when it comes to becoming a family lawyer. A Juris Doctor is needed, as is a pass on the bar exam. Earning a law license happens when an individual passes the bar.
No matter what a family lawyer’s practice specialty is, they must pass the bar exam. It is not just a test. Those who apply must submit background information along with proof of their education. This all goes to the state board of bar examiners.
The bar is written over 2-3 days so it is much more intense than the LSAT requirements. There is the Multistate Bar examination (MBE) which is made up of 200 multiple choice questions that focus on much of the content covered in the first year of law school. There is a second exam that then is more in-depth essay questions that are related to local state law and US national law subjects.
Some states also require lawyers to take the Multistate Essay Examination (MME) as well as the Multistate Performance Test (MPT). It is imperative that a student with a Juris Doctor find out exactly what is required in their state of practice before they write any bar exams.
Continuing Education Credits
Once a lawyer has the proper education in place and has passed the appropriate bar exam, most states require lawyers to move forward with continuing education. Family lawyers must have a minimum number of con-ed credits completed on a regular basis. Continuing legal education (CLE) can be obtained through accredited conferences, downloaded programs, seminars, online, and in-person courses.
All learning tools need to be approved by the state legal regulatory body. Learning opportunities have to be vetted by that body so they meet the required standards for additional learning. Learning must be targeted so all lawyers are in the loop in the legal world.
Work Towards an LL.M. (Master of Laws)
This last step is not one that is a necessity, however, taking education one step further can open the door to more career opportunities as well as allowing students to further specialize in programs included in the practice of family law.
The more education a student has in a particular area, the more likely they can obtain employment with a top tier law firm that is looking for specialists. An extra degree can also bring in a higher salary. Family lawyers usually make around $120,000 per year but can make more if specializing and with a top firm. Billable hours are at a higher rate.
Doing an LL.M. can bring more money but also peer respect and acknowledgment around certain areas of family law. Being able to be a sounding board for other lawyers as well as being asked to advise in particular areas can do a lot for a family lawyer’s career. Writing articles along with advising on family law specialties allow for expertise to not only grow but be used by those looking for the best in the business.