People think prosecutors deal with the most angry, dangerous, and undesirable elements within the justice system. While this may be true (sort of) some of the most explosive passion, anger, and raw animus can be seen in the context of family law cases. I recall, during my first few weeks as a family law attorney being blown away at the things people would say and do to each other in the context of a divorce or post-dissolution matter.
I’ve seen hate, anger, despair all surface in the same twenty-minute office visit. One person removed the marital bed out of the house when he was served with the dissolution petition his wife had filed just days before, out of spite. I have seen a wife explode in a fit of rage and storm out of the office because she was not winning a debate over which one-a-day vitamin the newly divorced couple would give their two children. Family law attorneys are almost tribal. They tend to keep to themselves and mingle, primarily, with their own kind. The reason? Because in family law you are exposed to some of the most base and raw emotions people can feel toward one another, and these intense feelings and emotion have a tendency to leave a smudge on the soul of the family law attorney.
It’s a Calling
When I was going through law school, family law was simply not on my radar. It was an area that seemed uninteresting and boring. It is a strange twist of fate that my first job after passing the bar was with a small family law firm. I didn’t know if I really wanted to do family law, but I thought perhaps it was an area of law in which I could help people when they needed it most, when their lives were falling apart and they needed a hand to get through the awful experience of divorce. Many family attorneys that I have worked with think that they are involved in highly charged, highly contentious situations to interject calm rationality and ensure that his or her client receives all that he or she is entitled to.
There is Danger
Family law attorneys expose themselves to risk. They are involved in cases that deal with property, money, children, and clients’ very lives. When the attorney effectively advocates for their client, the opposing party is likely to be angry, feel cheated, and harbor resentment. If the attorney fails to safeguard his or her client’s most cherished elements of the marital estate, their own client can feel anger and resentment toward the attorney. When an attorney is so involved in the outcome of the division of property, custody of children, etc. it stands to reason that he or she will be viewed as the enemy. Our system is adversarial by nature. These realities create real risk and peril for the family law attorney.
The Emotional Toll
Family law attorneys process a lot of emotion from their clients and synthesize it through the lens of the law. From crying clients pleading for assistance, heartbroken spouses wanting out of a marriage plagued with infidelity, or a mother who is shaking with rage because she is convinced that her child’s father is incapable of administering proper medical care to their diabetic infant. Whatever the issue, the family law attorney must see through the pain and suffering, bring order to chaos, and find the path to peace for his or her client. It is a special breed of attorney who can absorb all of the anger, pain, frustration, and devastation and advocate effectively for a positive outcome.
It is common for family law attorneys to practice in areas that touch on family law but fall outside or around family law. Many serve as Guardian Ad Litem, which are appointed by the courts to represent the best interest of the child in a variety of cases, such as custody battles, abuse cases, or high conflict dissolution cases. These GALs have to ignore the other “actors” in the drama unfolding in front of them and focus on the big picture—the best interest of the child—and provide an open and comprehensive report to the court. This can be time consuming and emotionally taxing. Other family law attorneys work on cases involving child services representing one of the other parents in a situation where the children have been taken by the state. The attorney must put blinders on to what is best for the other parent, and even the child, and focus on advocating and protecting the rights of their parent-client. This is very challenging because of the nature of these cases and the type of clients typically associated with them.
It’s Not For Everyone
It’s a difficult area of law to practice, but the rewards can be overwhelming. The opportunity to help people when their world is collapsing around them is amazing. It isn’t for everyone; people either love it or hate it. It’s worth a look, and if you like it, could represent a rewarding legal practice for an entire career.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.