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What Type of Personality Traits Are Needed to Help a Family Lawyer Succeed?

published February 08, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
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( 328 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Many of the legal professionals quickly point out that choosing family law means a great deal of client contact and often times dealing with those who are experiencing highly stressful situations.
What Type Of Personality Traits Are Needed To Help A Family Lawyer Succeed?

Professor Linda Elrod, who teaches family law at Washburn Law School, tells students interested in this field that they "must be a 'people' person and enjoy helping people restructure their lives."

Family lawyers surveyed for this article agree that it helps to be an extrovert and a strong desire to help people. Asked what personality traits are useful, many respond with phrases such as "liking people," "have charisma," and "need people skills."

The most frequently mentioned personality trait, however, is having patience. Over 55% of the practitioners include being patient among the traits needed to succeed or, as one lawyer puts it, "patience, patience, and more patience." Successful family lawyers must be patient with "their clients, opposing counsel, court personnel, and the system," another survey respondent writes.

Of course, lawyers in any field find themselves waiting for an expert's report or a cancelled court date to be rescheduled. But with so much at stake and with emotions running high, family law cases may proceed more slowly, or at least it may seem so to the clients involved.

A family lawyer also must have "patience for venting and emotional outbursts" by clients, according to a practitioner in Washington State. The lawyer may have heard the story before in a hundred other cases and may be able to predict what's going to happen next, but to the client, this is a new and baffling experience. Therefore, being a successful family lawyer requires "having an interest in and a willingness to listen to people's stories," says Caroline Gardiner of Portland, ME.
Being a good listener is also frequently mentioned as an important personality trait, according to the family practitioners surveyed.

While being able to explain things to clients is important, only 7% list as critical the ability to communicate while 18% list the ability to listen. Many point out that being a good listener means having the ability to "hear what is and is not spoken," as Linda Kogel, a practitioner in Vermillion, SD, describes it.

Having the ability to listen includes the ability to read body language and expression to determine when a person may be holding back or not telling the truth, explains Eliot Landau of Downers Grove, IL. He adds that some clients may be better at writing their story history than telling it and the attorney should "distinguish between verbal clients and writing clients when asking them to relate case history."

Approximately 28% say family lawyers should have a compassionate personality. "Caring," "supportive," "given to acts of kindness," and "compassion" repeatedly appear in the survey responses. Compassion is needed "especially in abuse cases," according to Landau.

"Be compassionate, caring, and honest with your clients," writes Clare Hornsby, a practitioner for 40 years in Biloxi, MS. "Let them know when they hurt, you hurt; when they are pleased, that you are pleased. You must give them courage."
A similar number (28%) of practitioners respond that "sympathy" "sensitivity," or "empathy" is critical in this field. Family lawyers must have "the ability to sympathize with clients who are going through one of the most stressful life experiences that humans can experience," explains a lawyer who has been practicing for over 15 years. They should have "empathy with all members of a family unit," writes another practitioner.


At the same time, many lawyers learn early on that family law requires objectivity, and that they must guard against becoming emotionally involved in their clients' problems.

"I have become practical about remaining removed emotionally from my clients," writes a lawyer who has been practicing family law for only two years. A family lawyer needs "the ability to empathize with clients, but to also keep a certain detachment to focus on the legal aspects of the client's situation," says another practitioner.

Having "objectivity yet ability to empathize and be concerned," as Ange Hamilton of the Oklahoma Indian Legal Services describes it, may be one of the most difficult balancing acts for any family lawyer. It requires "the ability to separate the client's problems from your own," explains Alan Rubinstein of Fort Myers, FL, "to help them solve their problems without your adopting their problems as your own."

It is critical to "have the ability to detach" or "establish good boundaries," as many of those surveyed explain. To some, this means "the ability to leave work behind at 5:00." To others, it means recognizing that there are always two sides to every story, and that a lawyer should have a "healthy skepticism" and a "strong sense of fair play." To others, this means "emotional availability, but professional detachment" or "the ability to see through the client's complaint to the legal issue."

A family lawyer needs to have "the ability to allow clients to express emotional concerns and then be able to help them sort through and recognize legal issues and deal with those matters," says W. Robert Montgomery of Lakewood, CO. A practitioner with 26 years of experience, he advises newer lawyers to "try to maintain an objective and non-emotionally involved perspective of clients' cases. Don't take on a client's emotional involvement and baggage as your own."

Understanding and Insight

About 11.5% mention understanding as an important personality trait for someone in this field. Several survey responses include phrases such as "perceptiveness," "basic under standing of the human psyche" and "insight into people and their personalities."

"Insight is critical," writes Lucille Espey-Francis of Tavares, FL, "because usually the surface conflict is just superficial." A family law practitioner since 1982, she also believes that "One needs to have compassion to listen to and not condemn family law clients."

Tolerance, "being nonjudgmental," or "open-mindedness" are all closely related to gaining experience and "understanding of the human condition," as several experienced practitioners point out.

Gail Nunn of Everett, WA, writes about growing as a result of "learning about the poor in our society and the many life problems they face, as well as learning about the effects of chemical and alcohol dependency on people at all socio-economic levels and their behaviors." As a practitioner, she has learned not to judge others and to be "more open minded and aware that not everyone comes from a middle class background."

Legal Skills

Being a good family lawyer means being a good lawyer, as many of those surveyed point out. "Legal scholarship" and "knowledge of the law" are vitally important, especially since family law touches on such a wide range of legal issues. Legal skills, such as being analytical or persuasive, are also key, as is a "keen intellect."

The ability to litigate is also critical. Asked what personality traits would help a family lawyer succeed, one lawyer responds "the same ones that would make a good lawyer generally, with a high litigation component." Several others mention "being willing to litigate for your client" among the characteristics they believe are important.

Being competitive, aggressive, or assertive is also frequently listed. "Firmness" or "being willing to fight when necessary" are also mentioned often, although this trait is sometimes qualified, as in having the "ability to be firm without being abusive" or the "ability to hold ground without being arrogant or aggressive."

Reflecting a trend to mediation, several family lawyers list "ability to mediate" or "create common ground" as a valuable trait.

"I think personality traits for a family law practitioner should be those which encourage parties to deal with their family problems as amicably as possible," says Patricia Stiller of Morgantown, WV.

"Divorce litigation is fraught with enough emotionality and does not need to be exacerbated by the attitude of attorneys." Ellen C. Schell of Keeseville, NY, believes family lawyers should have "the ability to cooperate as well as compete." Others include descriptive phrases such as having flexibility, being adaptive, and being a facilitator among desirable personality traits. The potential for finding common ground when mediating, even in the most difficult cases, is reflected in characteristics such as "creativity" and "resourcefulness."

One practitioner recommends adopting a "win-win approach to lawyering," and adds that she no longer accepts contested divorces.

Another says, "I personally have left litigation practice and work exclusively in mediation now." This should suggest to the law student who is considering this field, but is reluctant to handle certain types of cases, that a family law practice can be geared to reflect one's own personal and professional style.


"You also need a great deal of personal maturity and integrity to be a family lawyer," Professor Schepard points out. "Your own family circumstances often color your views on how to represent a client. You should not, for example, re-litigate your parents' divorce endlessly in your practice. We constantly need to be conscious of the problems family reorganization creates for children."

The need for maturity, professionalism, and high ethical standards is echoed in many of the survey responses. Several practitioners note that it takes self-confidence and a calm disposition to succeed in this field. Many use phrases such as "extreme emotional control," "calm under pressure," "slow to anger” and”inner security."

Family law practitioners need the "ability to work with emotion ally distraught people daily and maintain a perspective," explains Paul Watts, a family lawyer in Spencer, IN. They also "must be extra ordinarily ethical and honest, with the ability to communicated difficult concepts to unreceptive audiences."

Others describe the need for integrity, truthfulness, and being trustworthy. "Never, ever go back on your word to a client or another lawyer," says Harry McSteen of Joliet, IL.

"I have matured," says Clearwater, FL, attorney Ky M. Koch, who has practiced family law for 11 years. "I feel liberated and more voluble to tell clients and potential clients exactly what I think and to tell them that if they do not want to settle and if they do not want to be completely honest, that they need to find another lawyer."

Work Ethic

The words chosen to describe the amount of hard work it takes to succeed as a family law practitioner sound like a thesaurus: dedication, diligence, fortitude, forbearance, industry, persistence, perseverance, stamina, tenaciousness.
Many of the practitioners advise those considering this field to have "a willingness to work hard," among other desirable Thoughts on Being a Family Lawyer Ed Hamada, a family law practitioner in Boston, wrote the following in response to the question: "Looking back at the start of your career in family law, is there anything you know now that you wished you knew then?"
  1. There are always two sides to every issue.
  2. The quality of mercy expected from the bench begins with the mercy each of us shows to our client's spouse, as we are asked to "bury" that spouse for some perceived, apparent, virtual, or even actual wrongdoing.
  3. Family law is not just about divorce. Its breadth reaches not merely across an ocean, but across the very length of each of the lives of those involved. The "ripple effect" may well continue long after you have forgotten the client. The decisions we help our clients reach have unforeseen consequences which may not surface for years, but which have roots that began growing while the family unit was disintegrating.
  4. Decisions are made by clients who are as fully informed as possible. We are agents in the legal sense; instruments, by pen and word, in the literal sense; and advisors in the parental sense. When we act professionally, we must always be guarded against the use of professional tyranny. It may be the most tempting sin of all. Beware. It can be caustic.
  5. Never allow yourself to be used as an instrument of passion.
  6. Never permit yourself to wallow in disinterest.
  7. Honor your own schizophrenia. We each must be zealous advocates of our client's cause, but more importantly, we must also be objective. Indeed, we must be brutally objective and candid in our private conversations with each client, even at the risk of losing the client to a more ardent suitor.
  8. Never take a case because you need the fee. You will never be paid enough and the acceptance of that first dollar will impoverish you in the long run.
  9. Never take a case for a close friend or relative. You will never be able to do enough. You will never do it "right." You will lose your friend and alienate your relative, no matter what you do.
  10. Always try to do the right thing, even if it exposes you to personal risk at the bench or in the wallet.
  11. Don't shy away from an unpopular or apparently Quixotic issue. You have an obligation to your client and, more importantly, to yourself, to attain the client's goals by all lawful means. Anyone can try and anyone can win easy cases. Anyone can hide inside a popular cause. The highest, most notable and achievable reward for any attorney is to prevail upon the most difficult issue you have ever faced.
  12. Advocacy is an art, not a science. While all art may be worthwhile, excellence requires study and practice. Each client deserves your very best effort at excellence, each and every time you speak and act. And often, the most eloquence is heard in the sound of silence.
  13. Listen to your clients. Assume nothing. Call them on every thing. Take nothing at face value. Take nothing for granted. Are you getting the message?
  14. Most of the time, the best version of any client tale will be told the first time you hear it.
  15. Protect yourself. Memo every call. Read every letter. Save all prior drafts of everything you write. Today, it's only a few bytes on your PC. Tomorrow, it's only a portion of an archived diskette. In the future, it may save your career.
  16. Finally, have fun. Don't ever lose your sense of humor. In your clients' bleakest hours, you can still go home, kiss the kids, and read a book in peace. But having fun doing what you do during the day, getting satisfaction from knowing you're able to make a difference in the life of a single other person, will bring a smile that can last a lifetime.

Having the right attitude-or adopting one-can make a big difference, family lawyers say. Being successful means being "warm, com passionate, empathetic, but also a firm and no-nonsense type," according to Loren Howley, a practitioner for 17 years. She also writes that it takes "common sense about when to compromise and when to draw the proverbial line in the sand." She encourages law students to consider family law because "We need more good attorneys, conscientious, honorable, zealous (but not over-zealous) attorneys in this field."Several include common sense among their responses, as well as having realistic expectations. "Being reasonable helps," as Theodore Laputka of Hazleton, PA, puts it.

"Be courteous to your fellow practitioners and respect their views," Laputka adds, "They also have a job to do and they are trying to do it in the best way they know how."

Being civil, courteous, having social skills, and diplomacy are recommended traits in several of the responses. Several bemoan a lack of civility by others.

The need to have "a practical nature" or "take a constructive approach toward problems" is important as well. Several practitioners highly recommend an ability to handle stress, or as McSteen describes it, the ability to handle "chaos in reasonable amounts." Similarly, many others say family lawyers need the ability to put things in perspective and "maintain a sense of humor."


Obviously the wide range of personality traits demonstrates the varying lawyering styles of many of the survey respondents. Some indicate that they believe a particular trait is important, such as patience, but they are still working hard on developing that characteristic. Others mention that their personalities have altered over the years, that they are for example, less patient than they were when they were just starting out, or they are more empathetic as a result of their own life experiences.

One of the most thoughtful responses on desirable personality traits comes from Carrollyn Cox, a practitioner in Virginia Beach, VA, who writes, "I like to think that people of all personality types can be successful in a family law practice. I like to think that certain responses and attitudes can be learned."

She then goes on to list the attitudes which she feels are vital to someone who chooses this field:

The ability to stay calm and remain cooperative while pressing your client's case with zeal and firmness. The ability to deflect a personal attack by another lawyer and remain focused on the case and its issues. The ability to detach oneself from the problems, both real and perceived, of the client, yet still acknowledge the difficulties the client is facing.

published February 08, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
( 328 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.