What Family Lawyers Do
Family lawyers handle a wide variety of matters having to do with marriages and children, such as divorce and dissolution of marriage, child custody, paternity, adoption, termination of parental rights, guardianship, emancipation, and occasionally cases involving allegations of neglect and abuse, as well as restraining orders.
Who would enjoy a career in Family Law?
A career in family law is ideal for someone with strong communication and counseling skills, as disputes between family members are often heated and require a cool, yet knowledgeable, third party to help all parties reach an amicable agreement. Although family law is extremely litigation-based, and family lawyers will see more courtroom time than other types of attorneys, negotiation is a key component. Those who have a strong desire to better the lives of others often become involved in family law because they’re protecting the assets of their clients, as well as helping them create a plan that impacts the rest of their lives.
Who mightn't like the career?
The intense personal nature of the work can be difficult to cope with, particularly for those who become emotionally invested in their cases. Oftentimes, clients are either angry or devastated by the case as well, so those who aren’t prepared to help counsel their clients to some degree, if only to help them cope better throughout the case, don’t do well.
Family law also often extends into business and finance, so it’s not ideal for someone who isn’t well-versed across all aspects of law. Lastly, some cases, particularly divorce cases, have no “winner.” The best an attorney can hope for is to help get the client what he or she needs in order to start rebuilding, which can make family law a particularly thankless field. Those who practice must be able to feel intrinsically rewarded by a case that goes well, rather than by accolades from the client.
Admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate in the US and Canada. In the UK and Australia, offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law. Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process.
Those who are aware they’d like to enter into a law career should plan early and apply for a summer associate or internship position while still in school, as the experience will help secure a long-term position after graduation.
- Harvard Law School’s “Questions You Should Be Prepared to Answer”
- 10 tips for a strong legal internship interview
Moving into Family Law from another career
It can be difficult to transition into law, simply because one must pass legal exams and participate in additional coursework. At the same time, some big firms appreciate diversity and take pride in amassing a staff with unique non-legal backgrounds, as these individuals are better prepared to understand the needs of each sector that is being represented by the firm.
Graduate / Associate
Role: Incoming lawyers are referred to as associates. Students who are interning may have the distinction of being called a “summer clerk” or “summer associate,” and those fresh from university will be called “first-year associates,” and so on. Lawyers typically hold the title of associate for somewhere between seven and ten years, depending on the firm. During this time, their job is to support the firm’s partners, generally by handling research and reviewing contracts. It’s worth noting that some firms have an “up or out” policy, meaning that if a lawyer is not on the tenure track and does not become a partner within the allotted time, they are asked to leave the firm.
Role: Generally speaking, the title of senior associate is offered to a lawyer around five years into practice, though each firm will have its own guidelines. During this phase, the senior associate is expected to behave as if he or she is a junior partner. Ownership of projects is expected and the individual should be an expert in the area he or she covers. Tasks of greater importance may be assigned to senior associates by the firm’s partners and senior associates will generally have junior associates they can delegate some of their work to. It’s while working as a senior associate that a lawyer demonstrates to the firm that he or she is an indispensable part of the firm and is already behaving as if a partner.
Role: Associates who have proven themselves and are managing some of their own clients as well as bringing in new clients are typically offered partnerships. The exception to this is firms that have “of counsel” positions, which is a promotion from associate for those not on the partner career track. When a lawyer is offered a partnership role, it’s generally an equity partnership in which the lawyer “buys in” to the practice and then earns a percentage of the profits. As part owner, he also gets a say in the firm’s business decisions. Some firms may offer non-equity partnerships and let their seasoned lawyers take a salary instead of being part owner.
It’s fairly rare for family lawyers to travel, unless they’re part of a large firm or have a good reputation and are attracting clients from a distance.
Entry Level: According to data from PayScale, those beginning their careers have salaries of approximately USD $104,000 in the United States, £58,000 in the United Kingdom, CAD$97,000 in Canada, and AU$78,000 in Australia.
Mid-Career: USD$121,077, £70,800, CAD$110,580, AU$113,943.
Experienced: USD$159,040, £74,340, CAD$121,250, AU$145,816.
Naturally, bonuses and profit sharing are a major part of a partner’s income. With additional payments, an experienced attorney can earn more than USD$307,000, £120,000, CAD$156,000, or AU$206,000.
Why Family Lawyers move on
The burnout rate is somewhat high for those trying to make it up the family law ladder in a larger law firm, particularly in the first couple of years. The ongoing stress and emotional weight of the position can also cause people to seek less-demanding careers. Options include transitioning to another field of law or exiting the law all together.