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Taking one or more psychology courses while in undergraduate school is highly recommended for the family law practitioner. Professors suggest that both psychology and child development classes can be beneficial to those who choose family law. Professors also recommend taking psychology in undergraduate school, along with sociology, anthropology, and a "family systems" course.
Several practitioners point out that the more psychology classes a family lawyer can take the better or, as Arthur Rose of Hackensack, NJ, puts it, students should take "Psychology 1, 2, 3, and 4." Many attorneys also recommend child psychology or child development, as well as adolescent behavior or adolescent psychology.
Sociology or social behavior was listed as being helpful by over a quarter of the family lawyers. Several recommend students take a course in family studies or family systems. Classes in human relations, marriage, or sexuality are also suggested, as are more specific course titles such as "Domestic Violence Dynamics" or "Violence against Women." Two family law practitioners say they found their undergraduate classes in women's studies helpful in their practice.
Classes in social work, counseling, guidance counseling, and therapy were also mentioned as being beneficial to family law practitioners. One lawyer felt her nursing and social work background was very helpful and nine of those surveyed listed counseling among their suggested courses. Two lawyers thought it valuable to have taken a workshop or class in understanding the grieving process or "grief as it affects children and their parents." Students might also find it helpful to be knowledgeable about dependency and its impact on family relationships or to have "familiarity with alcohol and drug addiction strategies" according to Judith Haller Stanton, a practitioner with 17 years experience in Hobart, IN.
Over 46% recommend classes in accounting, business, finance, or "business planning." As Pamela Deal of Clemson, SC, explains, "Valuation of assets such as businesses, various retirement plans, etc. requires understanding of balance sheets." A background in business administration can be particularly helpful in running a practice, according to some, and others suggest students take a class in marketing or public relations.
Math is also a recommended course, along with economics and statistics classes. Many include history political science, or "cultural history" courses as being beneficial. A handful of the practitioners include anthropology and philosophy in their list. Debate and logic are good choices, according to some family lawyers, including Nancy Bailey of Dillon, SC who says her undergraduate class in logic was "the best course I ever took." English, writing courses or communication are on the list of over a quarter of the practitioners. Several mention literature or "courses that bring understanding of the human condition," as Beverly Tarpey a lawyer with 46 years experience describes them.
A handful of responses list skills training courses, such as inter viewing, listening skills, and a memory course. Community colleges offer many of these skills training classes on a regular basis as a one-day workshop.
Several of the practitioners find having a general liberal arts background valuable in this field. Franklin Miroff of Indianapolis recommends "courses in as broad of fields as possible, from accounting through psychology, because family law requires the broadest knowledge of any field in the practice of law."
Clare Hornsby of Biloxi, MS, who has been practicing for about 40 years, suggests students know "Shakespeare, the Bible, English and literature, history, memory courses, typing, and pray for common sense."
Recommended Undergraduate Courses for Family Lawyers:
Child Psychology or Child Development
Dynamics of Human Relationships or Domestic Violence
Advice to Students
Communications or Public Speaking
Sociology or Social Behavior
Other Recommended Courses
Recommended Law Courses
The wide range of recommended law courses demonstrates the variety of cases family law practitioners encounter. Professor Elrod recommends students take both Family Law and Advanced Family Law, along with Juvenile Law and Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Professor Schepard adds to that list Business Organizations, Income Tax, Family & State, and a "clinic of some kind."
Reflecting a trend towards alternative dispute resolution (ADR), several practitioners recommend courses in ADR or Mediation, or, as Anne Jordan of Scarborough, ME, suggests, "any alternative dispute resolution course you can get your hands on." Many of them recommend having a course in Arbitration or Negotiations.
Other frequently mentioned recommendations are classes in taxation and trial practice. Tax Law and some type of litigation course is specifically mentioned by several of the lawyers.
While a strong academic performance in law school is helpful, many of the lawyers indicate that clinical experiences is also important for those who wish to practice in this field. Clinics not only provide insights into "the real world," but also help a law student make valuable contacts with those who may be in a position to give them referrals or hire them after graduation.
Recommended Courses for Family Lawyers
Family Law Courses
Family Law/Advanced Family Law
Children and the Law
Women and the Law
Trial Practice/Trial Skills
Alternative Dispute Resolution/Mediation
Real Property/Real Estate
Probate & Estates/Estate Planning
Law Relating to Small Businesses
Other Recommended Courses
Chancery or Equitable Remedies
Conflict of Laws
Psychology and the Law
Public Benefits/Poverty Law
Social Security/Entitlement Law
While bar passage is the logical professional step following graduation, those interested in specializing in family law should check their local state bar for further information on specialty certifications. "Of the nine states which have their own direct certification programs, each one currently certifies lawyers in family law," explains Jeremy Perlin, staff counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Specialization.
While the certification label is generally "family law," a few of the states certify lawyers in "domestic relations law," "marital and family law," or "matrimonial law" (See chart on page 68 for a list of states.) An additional ten states have state accreditation plans which do not certify family law or other specialists directly, but have approved an independent agency or organization which can certify lawyers in their state. Some states have chosen this type of arm-length certification program to save money or protect them from liability.
Because family law encompasses so many areas of the law, certification programs, whether they are administered directly or indirectly by the states, are in a great deal of flux. Requirements, certifying agencies, and programs are under constant review. Lawyers interested in becoming certified, therefore, should contact their state organization directly and on a regular basis to stay current on certification requirements.
"While most certification programs have specific practice requirements such as a minimum number of years' experience, recent law school graduates who are interested in becoming a specialist should investigate their state's requirements," Perlin advises. "This would help them formulate a clear goal in planning their career and obtaining certain types of experiences and CLE credits as they work towards certification."
In addition to individual state programs, the American Bar Association has approved a number of private national programs related to family law. For example, the National Elder Law Foundation has an elder law program which has been accredited by the ABA. The National Association of Estate Planners & Councils Estate Law Spe cialist Board offers an estate planning specialty program which has
The following states have their own direct certification programs in family law.
Arizona: Domestic Relations Law
California: Domestic Relations - Family Law
Florida: Marital & Family Law
Louisiana: Family Law
New Jersey: Matrimonial Law
New Mexico: Family Law
North Carolina: Family Law
South Carolina: Family Law
Texas: Family Law
American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is a national professional organization which certifies its members once they have met certain requirements. Headquartered in Chicago, the Academy has members in every state who have passed a national and local examination and completed other requirements to become a fellow.
The Academy's screening process includes having satisfied specific practice requirements, such as having a minimum of ten years' experience with 75% of the attorney's work in the area of family law (or five years' experience if the attorney's work is 100% family law.)
There are also certain speaking and publishing requirements which must be satisfied.
The organization is small by design, with approximately 1,500 members, but young lawyers who are interested in specializing in family law are encouraged to contact the Academy and find out more information about becoming a fellow.
Recommended Work Experience
Family law practitioners offer a lot of ideas on what types of work or volunteer experience would be helpful to those who want to enter this field. Two of the most popular responses are interning for a family lawyer and clerking for a family court judge.
"Working in and around a family law practice might be beneficial in determining whether this is really a field you want to enter," writes William Piedimonte, a lawyer in Independence, MO, who has been practicing for 25 years.
Getting Courtroom Experience
For those who cannot get a clerking position or have another summer job, just visiting a courtroom on occasion will be instructive, according to practitioners. Visiting courtrooms can familiarize the law student with strategies and the names of those who practice in this field, according to Clare Hornsby of Biloxi, MO. It is also an opportunity to observe what is expected terms of demeanor, dress, and so forth.
"Go to the family courts and talk with lawyers and ask why they did certain things that did not make any sense to you," says Hornsby, who has been practicing for 40 years. "Learn how different attorneys handle different cases. Talk with judges and let them know you are interested in becoming a member of the profession."
Anthony Sakalarios, a lawyer Hattiesburg, MS, who has been practicing family law since 1978, strongly recommends law students visit bankruptcy court.
"In present day practice, the financial burden on both the woman and man involved in divorce has had far reaching impact," he points out. "This is evident in the number of bankruptcy filings, in consumer credit counseling, expanded federal and state aid and relief, welfare relief, and child protective service agencies."
Piedimonte, the attorney from Independence, MO, suggests that law students "visit some courtrooms on domestic violence
day. It is an extremely sobering experience."
Legal Aid Experience
"Meeting with clients in a legal aid clinic helped me tremendously when I opened my own practice," says one attorney who graduated 18 months ago and worked in her school's legal aid program. She also recommends "volunteering with a crisis center, such as an organization that helps domestic violence victims obtain restraining orders, or working in the domestic violence unit of a district attorney's office."
Sylvia Katz Wasserman, a Sheboygan, WI attorney, says volunteering for a legal aid society or for a lawyer in the field is good experience for students. A semester of working in the Legal Aid Office was a requirement when she attended Northwestern Law School nearly 60 years ago, although she actually volunteered for several years.
Some Special Advice for Those Looking Ahead
Donald W. Lindholm, a family law practitioner with the Phoenix, AZ firm of Burch & Cracchiolo, FA., shares some of his observations from 32 years of practicing law.
That is not always easy because the client may not like hearing what you have to say, but saying it nonetheless will save much grief and stress later in the day. Be absolutely truthful and honorable in all of your dealings with your adversary. It is critical that you be able to hold your head up high at the end of the day. If you maintain an honor able reputation you will be more effective for your client and you will reduce the stress in your own life.
Keep your client informed. It is not enough to send the client copies of all correspondence and pleadings received from the other side and all minute entries and court orders. You must explain the meaning and implications of all matters to your client so they will be sufficiently well informed to be able to understand any of the proceedings which they take an interest in.
Return messages (whether they be by telephone, fax, e-mail or letter) from your client and from your adversary as soon as you can. Do not put them off. If you delay even a day or two it may cause you grief and will certainly increase the stress in your life.
Try to understand and like your clients. Make every effort to deal with your adversary on a professional level. Maintain cordiality. Be credible, forthright and honest. Try to discuss issues on a practical basis, but one which is soundly based on the law. To do this it is necessary to be willing to talk to your adversary and it is necessary to know the facts of your case and it is necessary to know the law. All of this takes a lot of time. If you have too many cases or too many diversions, you are probably not going to be able to do a good job and your stress level is going to increase.
Vicky Macias Marin of Kennewick, WA, agrees that volunteering for a legal clinic or legal aid office can be very instructive. "They always have a lot more family law cases than they can handle and it's an easy way to get lots of real-life experience fast, especially with domestic violence-related cases," she says.
In addition to working in a legal aid office, experience in mediation centers or a district attorney's office with the family support division or domestic violence unit is also highly recommended.
Social Service Experience
Several practitioners specifically recommend obtaining experience in a domestic violence shelter or agency. Several suggest working with the state or local department of social services or consumer credit agencies. Still others list family counseling services, suicide or crisis hotlines, rape counseling centers, homeless shelters, or "anything that provides contact with families and children in crisis," as one practitioner describes it.
Franklin Miroff of Indianapolis recommends working for "something in the mental health field, such as a family stress center, shelter, or other related community service project which would show the kinds of problems that families have when they are in transition."
Experience with advocacy groups is also recommended, including victim-witness advocacy groups or a men's rights group. Many respondents suggest students assist the elderly, through hospital or nursing home programs, to become familiar with the difficult issues they and their families face.
Several of those surveyed point out that programs which offer marital counseling or group therapy can be useful to the future family law practitioner. Part-time work or volunteering will allow students to learn key principles from experienced mental health professionals.
Recommendations for students also include getting involved in law enforcement programs, half-way homes, mental hospitals, and 12-step recovery programs which offer exposure to the complex issues and potential solutions for families and individuals.
Working with Children
Many of the practitioners surveyed highly recommend that law students work with children and teenagers through summer or volunteer programs. Several suggest becoming involved in a court guardian ad item program or working with a child protective services agency. Assisting with child advocacy in a juvenile court or helping supervise visitation programs are possibilities, as are working with abused children or in a foster program.
One practitioner suggests working with a juvenile detention center of half-way house "because I think you need to consider the long-term impact of a divorce" on some children. Law students who are interested in volunteering should check with the city or county government offices for different types of advocacy programs or court diversion programs for at-risk youth.
There are a wide variety of tutoring, recreational, and other youth programs offered in most communities where law students can obtain hands on experience. The family lawyers recommend involvement in summer camp, church youth groups, and specific programs, such as Big Brother or Big Sister. Many law schools have volunteer tutoring, guidance, or literacy programs, as well.
Other Types of 'People Experience'
In addition to the frequently recommended types of summer work or volunteer experiences described above, survey respondents offer a wide range of options for law students "to build interactive people skills" as one lawyer puts it.
The fact that "anything working with people" is a useful experience says a lot about the practice of family law. Thus, there are lawyers who find their experience as former teachers, child care providers, and social workers very helpful in their law practice. Many of those who have held jobs in food services and retail sales recommend this type of work "or anything dealing with the public on a day-to-day basis."
"Being a well-rounded person helps the family lawyer help the client," explains Coleen Clemente of Westminster, MD. "I was a teacher and tend to 'teach' the client more than other lawyers. I also participated in many church, school, and community volunteer organizations."
"Personally, having waitressed and bartended my way through college and law school was the best training I had," admits Anne Jordan. "If you can keep your sanity in those jobs, you'll do just fine."
The wide range of recommended courses and work experiences demonstrates that family lawyers can expect a lot of variety in their life. Law students who enjoy working with people and are good at it are probably going to find much more personal satisfaction in their professional lives as a family lawyer because of their daily contact with clients than they might have working for a large firm or corporation.
But the wide variety experienced in family law cases also makes it more difficult to master the substantive knowledge, the professional know-how, and what might be described simply as the "life experience" needed to succeed in this field.
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