Perhaps there are colleges that focus a great deal more on family law than I experienced at my alma mater. We had plenty of business and commerce related courses but only a single family law course. This frustrated me somewhat sincemy first career involved counseling troubled youth and families and providing protective services for vulnerable children. The law was very prominent in the lives of many of these families. As I looked beyond the families I served, I saw the law directly impacting families in every strata. Divorce comes to the rich and the poor alike. So, it puzzled me why this area of law, that touches so many more people than any other, received such short shrift.
But then I listened to the professors and my fellow students. Very few entered law school actually wanting to practice family law. We heard from professors how so many lawyers avoided or left family law practice because of the nature of the practice. For many students, family law was seen as a last resort and certainly none of the big firms were searching for people to fill a family practice.
There are unique stresses involved in family law. Divorce and custody battles obviously raise peoples emotions to a fevered pitch. A divorce goes far beyond the dissolution of a business relationship or breach of contract in reaching into ones soul and shredding it. No one enduring a divorce or a custody battle will remain entirely rational regardless of how far gone the relationship. These emotions spill forth onto the attorneys: sometimes overtly but always subtly.
Some attorneys get charged up for battle from theemotions and, knowingly or not, escalate the conflict. These attorneys seem to prefer to file motions rather than return phone calls. I suppose there is also the temptation to increase the conflict to increase the billable hours. Other attorneys shelter from the emotions with great and practised dispassion. The latter seems preferable but there is a movement afoot, collaborative law, to try and find a better solution. Here, where the parties are least likely to be able to come to an amicable solution, the attorneys really need to consciously decide to increase the opportunities for cooperation.
Some would say that this is not zealous representation of their client. I disagree. Seeing the emotional and spiritual damage to people after bitterly fought divorces does not convince me that such wreckage served the client the best. Here, zealous representation calls for looking farther down the road and helping the client discern the best overall outcome. This almost always means compromise.
Another source of distress in family law is the variance built in to domestic relations laws. The statutes and cases are full of standards such as: “best interest”, “seriously endanger”, and “just proportion”. There really is no clear guidance here; rather, the judge has tremendous discretion and the attorney must exercise great creativity. There is no real guarantee how a motion or hearing will turn out under these circumstances. With less certainty there is greater distress.
These aspects of family law are why law schools need to provide greater training in this law practice area; not reasons to avoid it. Furthermore, they should promote the idea that this is an essential and vital area of the law instead of a dreaded practice to avoid. Family law needs the best and brightest. Not only because of the impact of family law, but because of how creative one must be when the law leaves so much variance. Thanks to the family law practitioners that have found the right balance!