All lawyers hope to help their clients, but few do so with the emotional, personal impact of family law attorneys. After all, the things often at stake in family law cases—like a child’s welfare or justice for an abused spouse—have a gravitas many other areas of the law cannot match.
Of course, family law is about much more than those heavier topics. But wherever you find family law attorneys, they play a vital role in helping people navigate some of the more poignant periods of their lives, using vast legal expertise and extraordinary empathy.
Sound like the kind of lawyer you want to be? Keep reading for your guide to becoming a family law attorney.
First things first: what do family law attorneys do?
As the term implies, family lawyers focus on issues that have an impact on families. They deal with matters such as divorce proceedings, adoptions, and child custody. Common tasks include drafting custody agreements, wills, prenuptial agreements, and other documents. While some family lawyers engage in litigation, it is a less prevalent aspect of this practice.
But family law is also a surprisingly broad legal area, says New England Law | Boston Professor Monica Teixeira de Sousa, advisor for the school’s Family Law Concentration. It touches upon everything from constitutional law to tax law to real estate. “The best way to think about it is, what are the legal issues that are likely to impact the family unit?” she says.
In divorce cases, for example, considerations may include whether they are handled on a fault or no-fault basis, how assets will be divided, and various possible grounds such as irreconcilable differences, mental cruelty, or desertion. Child custody and support may be major factors as well. Some family law attorneys also delve into criminal law, dealing with individuals who have been accused of abuse or neglect. Finally, as society changes and technology advances, new aspects of family law are likely to emerge. Applications in genetic engineering of human beings, for example, may bring a host of new legal questions that family law attorneys will help address.
Beyond the specialized knowledge, succeeding as a family lawyer requires the same basic skills as other legal areas: strong written and verbal communication, time management, critical thinking and analysis, etc. Moreover, strong “people skills” are especially important for family lawyers. Given the deeply personal issues inherent to family law, the ability to relate calmly and constructively with people who may be emotionally vulnerable is a must.
Another reality of a family law practice that should be recognized, Professor Teixeira de Sousa points out, is that dealing with people in these situations (divorce, custody battles, etc.) can be personally challenging. “You’re dealing with all the most intimate personal details of other people’s lives” she says. “No matter how thorough a job you do as an attorney, you may not be able to make them happy. Basic best practices such as promptly returning client phone calls are particularly important in this type of practice too.”
Despite these challenges, family law has much to offer, and supporting clients in even the most difficult cases can be deeply rewarding. Family law also remains a crucial legal specialty, covering issues core to a society’s culture and values.
“There’s a rich body of [family] law,” Professor Teixeira de Sousa says. “Students are often fascinated by the way in which the common law [cases] reflect evolving gender roles and societal expectations of the family, and how there is always a new and exciting legal development around the corner.”
How to become a family lawyer
The first basic requirement in becoming a lawyer is, of course, earning a bachelor’s degree. However, it’s worth noting that there is no single degree or program that leads to law school or even a family law career in particular. Students who aspire to attend law school major in a variety of areas such as political science, history, economics, or business. Even more technical fields such as engineering or nursing can be good precursors to a legal career. The same is true of graduate degrees in any number of fields.
After successfully navigating the admissions process and enrolling in law school, the courses you take will help determine your future career options. An array of basic courses is required for all law students, but over the duration of your studies, you’ll also be able to take classes that will prepare you more specifically for family law. At New England Law, for example, students may complete the concentration in family law by earning ten credits from a selection of courses such as Children and the Law, Divorce Law, Domestic Violence, Family Law, Juvenile Law, Law and the Elderly, and more.
Law students can gain early exposure to family law through volunteer work, internships, fellowships, or part-time employment. Students also gain valuable experience through clinics and externships. In the Family Law Clinic at New England Law, students get to help real clients with such vital work as filing restraining orders against domestic abusers. They also work under the supervision of two attorneys who have decades of experience in family law.
These hands-on experiences are especially important in helping students determine if becoming a family lawyer is right for them. “Get experiential training early to see if you’re really cut out for it,” Professor Teixeira de Sousa advises. “It’s one thing to learn about [family law] in the classroom, but you won’t know if it’s the right fit for you until you roll up your sleeves and begin interacting with real live clients.”
It’s one thing to learn about family law in the classroom, but you won’t know if it’s the right fit for you until you roll up your sleeves and begin interacting with real live clients.
Like so many lawyers just starting out, a fateful experience early in her career exposed Starlene Alves to family law, setting her on a path in this legal niche. “I was young and had an amazing opportunity to work for an experienced [family law] attorney in my hometown,” Alves says. “She practiced predominately divorce, custody, and support cases, so I was exposed to that type of family law for nearly eleven years.”
Alves eventually enrolled at New England Law | Boston, looking to expand her career options. “New England Law prepared me to be a well-rounded attorney by giving me the opportunity to explore other areas of law and to be involved in different internships,” she says.
After graduating, Alves started a family law firm with another New England Law graduate, Sania Santos: Alves|Santos, LLP. “We both had very different tracks in law school and experiences post-graduation,” Alves says. “When we decided to open a law firm together, we were able to combine our experiences and offer a variety of services.” Today, the partners delve into everything from personal injury to juvenile law to employment discrimination to immigration.
“If you’re thinking about opening up your own family law practice, there are many things to learn,” Professor Teixeira de Sousa adds. She suggests taking classes in areas you might not otherwise consider such as taxes, modern real estate, and wills, estates, and trusts. These diverse experiences can round out your legal skillset. But she adds, “Don’t let the number of discrete topics that fall under family law scare you away, as you’ll have a lifetime to build your expertise.”
After passing the bar exam, future family lawyers often go on to work with nonprofit organizations, small to mid-sized firms, or government agencies. For example, state or regional associations that advocate for survivors of domestic violence may employ attorneys with a background in family law. Or they might start their own firms like Alves and Santos. Individuals with the required credentials and experience may find teaching family law to be a rewarding experience as well.
Where to learn more
Ready to explore a possible future in family law?
Start by taking a closer look at law schools with family law programs; their websites can provide a great introduction to what this career path entails, as you explore related courses and experiential learning opportunities. Then try visiting the schools themselves, scheduling a meeting with a family law professor if you can. You might also contact the admissions office to see if they can connect you with family law faculty, students, and alumni via phone or email, so you ask them your questions and learn firsthand about becoming a family lawyer.
Similarly, for a personal view on studying and working in this field, you can conduct your own outreach to family lawyers in your local area. Many lawyers are quite receptive to polite requests for brief informational interviews, which can be informative and motivating. (You may be able to make this connection through a family friend or relative too.)
Of course, there’s also no such thing as too much online research, and you can learn more about becoming a family lawyer through professional organization websites. For example, The American Bar Association offers a “Section of Family Law” that features information not only for working lawyers but also students and others interested in the field. Their resources include conferences and webinars, magazines, email updates on recent family law cases, and online access to archived cases. Other organizations of interest include the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the National Academy of Family Law Attorneys.
As you review information from these and other sources, you’ll find that family law offers many challenges and rewards. Perhaps this multi-dimensional field will be part of your own future as well.