So you actually want to start a family law practice? And you did not come to this decision because a friend or family member asked you to help with a divorce? Do you actually want to spend your life in the most emotional battle zone in law?
Just checking, because, if you didn’t know it, there are good reasons why many lawyers run from practicing family law. It can be emotionally draining, financially challenging, and even dangerous to your health. Once you can accept that, it’s not that hard to start a family law practice.
Here are some tips, but first a story to double-check your commitment:
Gunshots Heard ‘Round the Courthouse
Years ago, I was practicing family law in a jurisdiction where a commissioner, two lawyers, and two litigants were shot and killed following bitter custody battles. A grandmother and grandchild were victims, too, in a murder-suicide with a lawyer.
That should be enough said, but here’s how it affected the practice in general. Lawyers were scared. The man who walked into the opposing counsel’s office and shot him dead probably did it for many attorneys. Or maybe it was the guy who followed the commissioner home and murdered him in his driveway.
Anyway, one day I stopped by another practitioner’s office to deliver some documents and to chat. She had installed bullet-proof glass in the reception area. Think about that.
Clients Will Come; Challenges Will Follow
If there is a bright side to these tales of woe, it is that there is no shortage of angry and disillusioned people who need legal help in family matters. Getting clients is not the real challenge to starting a family practice. Statistically, half your married friends will need your help with a divorce one day.
Being there for people who are emotionally broken is actually the “good” part of the practice. You can be a counselor in more than the legal sense, helping the wounded to heal emotionally and legally. Just do a good job and they will come.
The biggest challenge to “family practice” is that it is really more like “everything practice.” You may start by filing a petition for dissolution in family court and end up in probate court if somebody dies (naturally, hopefully; otherwise, it may be criminal court.) Domestic violence and juvenile proceedings may actually be in the same building because “family lawyers” easily get entangled in other practice areas.
New practitioners try to learn it all but they really should learn to refer cases to others for special handling. For example, new family attorneys should send out qualified domestic relations orders — which divide pensions and retirement plans — to other counsel who keep up with that part of the law. Basically, the learning curve is continuous and continuing education is mandatory.
Family Law Specialists
Certified by state bars in some jurisdictions, family law specialists usually have a leg up on the competition. Clients like to know that their lawyer knows more than their spouses’ lawyer.
In any case, you will get to know most of the attorneys in the family law community. There is certain collegiality, and it is a good thing in a difficult practice area and useful for referral work, especially for new practitioners. It is even appropriate to drop by and chat with opposing counsel — if you can get past the bullet-proof glass.