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Legal Subspecialties in Family Law

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Because family law encompasses such a wide range of substantive law topics, many practitioners and academics have been able to carve out special niches for themselves within this field. In this article, seven lawyers who have chosen various subspecialties talk about their work.


Joel D. Tenebaum held a variety of legal positions before selecting his present specialty of adoption. Upon his graduation from Brooklyn Law School, Tenebaum practiced personal injury and criminal law.

He also served as counsel to the New York State Constitutional Convention, was an assistant district attorney, the executive director of a legal aid clinic, and a U.S. Magistrate.

But Tenebaum had developed an interest in working with Catholic Social Services as a child advocate. He began to focus on "the creation of families rather than the dissolution," as he describes it. As a partner in the Wilmington, DE, firm of Woloshin, Tenebaum, and Natalie, PA, he now meets daily with clients, other attorneys, prospective parents, and agencies in his work as an adoption specialist.

"I enjoy the emotional satisfaction of sharing the joy and happiness and gratitude of clients" Tenebaum explains. He estimates that he works about 60 hours a week on the average, making telephone calls and court appearances, and writing or responding to correspondence. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Elder Law

As an advocate for the elderly, Paul J. Buser of Scottsdale, occasionally makes "house calls" to the home bound. His concern for his older clients goes back more than 20 years, when, as a young attorney practicing in Idaho, he had three clients within a year's time whose relatives were seeking to have them declared mentally incompetent.

Of course, Buser is quick to explain, there are many elderly clients who can no longer adequately care for themselves or make decisions, just as there are millions of families who assist older relatives while helping them maintain their dignity. But Buser is a strong advocate for what he refers to as vulnerable or incapacitated clients, those who are being victimized by family members or nonrelatives.

A common pattern, according to Buser, is to isolate the older adult from other family members and friends so that the elder person becomes totally dependent on the predator. The fear of being left alone without food and medicines is then used by the predator to tap bank accounts or make changes to the older person's estate plan. The VI has no one else's conduct to compare to the predator's financial wheeler-dealings," Buser explains. "The bank accounts slowly dwindle and family heirlooms * disappear' while the VI becomes a shut-in, not by choice, but by the predator's maneuvers." While a student at St. Louis University School of Law, Buser's best grades were in his probate and family law classes. Upon graduating in 1972, one of his first positions was to head the Ombudsman Pro gram for the Idaho Office on Aging. He also was the chair of Boise's Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

After building a successful practice in Boise, Buser found himself at a crossroads in the early 1990s when he fell in love with a woman who lived in Ohio. He decided to start all over by moving east and studying to pass the bar in New York, Illinois, and Ohio. During that time, he took a sabbatical from family law practice and spent a year prosecuting death cases for the Attorney General's Office in Ohio.

"It was a deliberate break in my career," Buser says. "I had handled capital cases before and always had an interest in them. It was some thing I wanted to do for a limited period of time and so I took a sabbatical."

Buser had no doubt that he wanted to return to family law, how ever, and once he had passed the bar in those three states, he began handling divorce and elder law cases in Chicago and Ohio. In 1997, he moved from Ohio to Arizona, where he has built a practice that combines probate law, family law, and corporate law related to family-owned businesses.
"Probate law is very similar to family law, as both involve courts of equity," Buser explains.

In addition to his practice, Buser is active in professional associations, chairing the Special Legal Needs of the Elderly Committee for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and various pro grams and committees over the years for the ABA Family Law Section and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Between speaking engagements, association commitments, and running a law firm, Buser admits he has to struggle to refrain from working seven days a week. His sense of indignation remains strong however, when a case comes to him involving elder abuse.

"There are so many vulnerable and incapacitated adults who are financially exploited by their families, neighbors, or 'friends' anxious to expedite the inheritance process," according to Buser. "After 20 years, I still enjoy helping them and making sure the bad guys don't win."

Children's Attorney

In the mid-1970s, Tony DeMarco dreamed of creating a law firm to serve children. His goal was to "offer comprehensive legal services to kids who were abused and neglected, kids who had gotten stuck in the delinquency system, kids in need of special education or special services, and every variety of kid who needed a true legal advocate."

While DeMarco knew he would never lack for clients, his very real problem was how to get paid for doing this type of legal work.

Nonetheless, he launched the North Shore Children's Law Project in 1977, and found initial support from lawyers and judges who under stood the horrible circumstances many children encounter and the need to find workable solutions. As judges began giving the Project their most difficult cases and court fees increased, the organization was able to secure grant and foundation support and continue to grow. In 1988, the organization was renamed the Children's Law Center of Massachusetts in order to correctly identify its broader mission that included training the bar and policy initiatives at the state level.

Today DeMarco serves as director of this six-attorney "pediatric law firm" representing 300 children under the age of 18 (or under 22 in special education matters) free of charge each year. Additionally, the Center offers telephone assistance on intake for over 900 callers annually and provides workshops and seminars on issues affecting children to over 1,000 private attorneys as well as bar advocate pro grams. Its legal services are extended by matching volunteer attorneys with children through its Pro Bono Program.

DeMarco says his career as a children's attorney began with one of the first positions he accepted as a lawyer back in 1972.

"After graduating from Suffolk University School of Law and taking the bar, I did a two-year stint in the U.S. Army" he explains. "Upon return, I looked for jobs and was offered three: one with an insurance company, one with the U.S. Maritime Service, and a third with the Commonwealth's Department of Youth Services (DYS). I took the kids job and the short money."

At the time, the DYS was being reformed from a standard large institution system into a community-based juvenile corrections sys tem. DeMarco served as legal counsel to Commissioner Dr. Jerome G. Miller, who closed the commonwealth's six large training schools for delinquents and developed a wide range of group homes, residential care, foster homes, and tracking programs as community-based services for the agency's 1,600 wards.

From 1975-1976, DeMarco left Massachusetts and answered the call from Dr. Miller to serve as chief counsel for a statewide class action suit in Pennsylvania that led to the removal of 400 juveniles from an adult prison and their placement into community settings with educational and tracking supportive programming.

"Deinstitutionalizing Camp Hill in Pennsylvania took an extraordinary emotional toll. I met these four Temple University School of Law graduates who started the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia," DeMarco recalls. "They were representing children in delinquency and dependency cases and enjoying practicing juvenile law. I decided to return to Massachusetts and follow their lead and do it one kid at a time through direct representation."

In the two decades since founding the Law Center, DeMarco has "evolved into a manager and agency director." A large portion of his time is spent supervising the 14-member staff and securing funding for their salaries.

In addition to his management responsibilities, DeMarco spends time teaching, developing training manuals, and advocating on behalf of children in statewide and national issues. He also handles a dozen cases a year for the Center, down considerably from the aver age of 40 cases in the early years, but a way to continue serving children one-on-one.
"The truth is that after 20 years, the best part is meeting the new child/client" DeMarco says. I still enjoy the drive to the foster home and listening to what the child wants their lawyer to represent to the court."

The scenario may differ slightly for an adolescent, where a McDonalds is generally the site of preference, but getting the youngster to open up is always the first order of business.

"The child/client is usually cautious and distrustful at first," DeMarco explains, "and the attorney's task is to gain that trust through visits and communication." Being able to successfully represent individual children is tremendously satisfying.
"Whether the case is a delinquency, an abuse petition, or a run away, the kids are the same," DeMarco says, "You just meet them at different times in the system."

Public Policy Advocates for Children and Families

Children's Defense Fund

Upon graduating from New York University School of Law in 1995, Kim Wade was offered a position at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, DC. Choosing to work for CDF was easy, given her personal commitment to justice for all children, her love for political action, and her lack of interest in litigation. Today, as assistant general counsel, Wade describes her specialty as "public policy advocate for children and families, focusing on keeping children safe, violence prevention, reasonable gun regulation, and strong juvenile justice."

Wade enjoys a tremendous amount of variety in her work and says there is "no typical week," although she can count on having to put in ten or more hours a day just to keep up. Each week brings a mixture of meetings with CDF staff, advocates from outside groups, and members of Congress and the administration. Much of her time is spent writing updates and "alerts" on legislation, and analyzing the results of new data and research. She also responds to media inquiries, as well as e-mail and phone calls from advocates around the country.

Wade appreciates "having excellent colleagues" and "the ability to impact millions of children's lives" through the work of the CDF. She also enjoys "the opportunity to learn about communities' successes and share these stories so people know that we can make a difference and keep children safe."

ABA Center on Children and the Law

Since 1979, Howard A. Davidson has been the director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, located in Washington, D.C. For nearly 25 years, his work has been devoted to "improving children's lives through advances in law, justice, knowledge, practice, and public policy," he says, quoting the Center's mission statement.
"The Center looks at how the legal system impacts children, whether the issue is child abuse and neglect, child welfare and protection, foster care, family preservation, child support, custody and visitation, domestic violence, or parental abduction," Davidson explains. The Center's 20-member staff works with child welfare agencies to develop curricula and train attorneys and social workers.

Staff members also assist states, federal agencies, and courts through a constant review of child welfare laws and procedures.

"The common thread through all our work is that we are constantly learning from the field what the issues are, and then we are applying our knowledge to overcome the barriers that people find in helping children," Davidson says.

While at Boston College of Law School, Davidson worked at a community legal services office and volunteered at the school's storefront legal assistance program handling family law cases. He also took a law school clinical course on juvenile justice and, working under an attorney's supervision, represented juveniles charged with delinquency.

Upon graduation, Davidson became an Army Staff Judge Advocate, handling many legal assistance matters for service members, including family law-related cases. After military service, he worked for five years as a community legal services attorney specializing in juvenile cases, representing hundreds of children in delinquency, status offender, and abuse/neglect cases.

Davidson's personal background, including the death of his parents while he was an adolescent, and his professional experiences have combined to make him a strong advocate for children. He likes to call his specialty "pediatric law," a term he says was coined by his friend Don Bross, a lawyer-for-children pioneer who founded the National Association of Counsel for Children.

"I have always liked children," explains Davidson. "I have three of my own, including an adopted child. Moreover, like many I've met in our field over the years, I personally had some rough events during my childhood years that have helped me empathize with my child clients and vulnerable children generally."

Work in this field is "both legally challenging and extremely rewarding" according to Davidson. His work involves "a mixture of substantive writing and research on children and the law, working with the Center's staff, and meeting with other ABA or non-ABA personnel on relevant issues." It also includes "participating in group processes to re-write statutes, draft new policies, protocols, or standards, focusing on both national and individual state issues." Communicating via phone calls or e-mail with lawyers, other child advocates, and journalists is a large part of his job.

Asked to describe a typical work week, Davidson dutifully recounts how he spent the last seven days.

"The week just ending is a good example," he says. "I started with a weekend-long meeting with researchers from several universities interested in children, families, and the law. That meeting explored ways in which we could conduct useful research to help guide juvenile and family court judges, legislators, and others.

"Then, on Monday, I met with the executive director of a national psychiatry organization to discuss ways our organizations could work together. 1 also attended a meeting for one of our projects on adolescent health issues in which we're working collaboratively with other professional associations.

"On Tuesday, I attended a luncheon meeting discussing the forth coming World Congress on Family Violence to be held in India. Most of Wednesday was spent working on various reports and articles, returning phone calls and e-mail messages, and meeting with Center staff. I had an advisory board meeting Thursday for a national study that will be undertaken of indigent defense services. My role on the board is to help the survey look at legal representation of parents and children in civil child protection cases. On Friday, I spent most of the day preparing for our bi-annual Center Governing Committee meeting, which is taking place on Saturday."

Davidson believes his work offers "the chance to truly make a difference in the lives of children and families." He enjoys seeing "the Center's work helping lawyers, judges, and other children's advocates to better serve children and families every day."

Over the years, Davidson has worked with many undergraduates and law students and he encourages them to consider a career in children and the law.

"I believe that this is a uniquely complex area of law" says David son, "and that attorneys working on behalf of children have ample opportunities to change the law and legal practice in ways that can truly benefit all of society."

Assisted Reproductive Technology and Genetics

As principal of BioLaw Group, LLC, in Santa Fe, NM, Ami S. Jaeger provides legal and policy consulting services as well as political strategy advice in genetics and assisted reproductive technologies for clinics, businesses, industry associations, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

She is also currently a visiting scholar for the Institute at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where she is involved with programmatic development and research agendas for the biotechnology, environmental genomics, and agricultural genetics programs.

Before starting her own firm in 1997, Jaeger was director of the Law and Public Policy and the Genetics and Public Issues Programs at the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe, where she conducted a national survey of public attitudes about genetic testing and briefed members of the U.S. Congress.

In the early 1990s, as a health policy consultant in Washington, D.C., Jaeger helped clients such as the National Center for Human Genome Research address the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic research. In 1995, she co-authored a report for the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment investigating underlying issues of patenting human DNA sequences, including international aspects of human genetics, research, and implications for commercialization.

Jaeger describes her entry into the field of genetic technology as "serendipitous," having worked as a research attorney for the American Bar Foundation upon her graduation from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1986. During her two years at the ABF, Jaeger worked with Lori Andrews, who works in the field of assisted reproductive technologies and genetics. In 1987, she was cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in a case which successfully challenged the constitutionality of an Illinois statute prohibiting human embryo research and in vitro fertilization.

After leaving the ABF, Jaeger chose to stay in health care as an in-house counsel for an insurance company for four years. She began expanding her skills to include policy analysis and governmental experience in genetics policy, which helped her secure positions as a national consultant and which she now uses daily in her own practice.

"My practice has grown as genetic technology has developed," explains Jaeger. "While my start was serendipitous, I have stayed in the field because I enjoy working between the disciplines of law and medicine, and because the rapidly evolving science and technology keeps the work on the cutting edge."

Since her firm is relatively new, Jaeger devotes a portion of her day to business development, networking, writing articles, and speaking to groups, in addition to keeping abreast of changes in a rapidly growing field. She estimates that she puts in between 60-80 hours a week. In 1997 alone, she was a presenter at 11 different conferences in eight states, published two papers, and updated a chapter on reproductive technologies for The New Our Bodies, Our Selves.

"Each day, I spend time increasing my knowledge and staying cur rent with scientific, medical, and legal discoveries," Jaeger says. "The remaining time is spent researching, writing, and working with clients."

Despite a hectic schedule, Jaeger enjoys her work and having her own firm.

"I enjoy the variety of issues that arise," she explains, "and the intellectual challenge to develop solutions that meet the needs of my clients."


The profiles of lawyers in this article demonstrate some of the many choices for professionals in family law. A law degree is a versa tile tool and those who do not wish to use the adversary system can choose many different career paths. They might choose to teach at the college level, in law school, or in continuing legal education pro grams. They might want to work for the juvenile court system, as a judge, an administrator, or as the director of a delinquency prevention program.
They might work in policy development or research, as a government attorney or a staff member for a nonprofit organization. They might want to write for a publisher or work in community programs.

Law students should keep in mind that they may be able to create their own positions and that every position that opens up might not be advertised. But with creativity and perseverance, the possibilities for using a legal education and skills in this field are endless.

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