Family law: area of practice
Family solicitors advise people on financial matters when their relationships break down or issues that affect their children. Public law work, such as children in care disputes (often legally aided), forms a significant part of family law.
Solicitors have 20 to 30 active cases at any one time, ranging from prerelationship advice – such as cohabitation and pre-nuptial agreements – through to dealing with complex financial divorce proceedings.
A love of advocacy is necessary; while solicitors try to resolve matters outside the court system, you will need to represent your client in court from time to time. Occasionally, solicitors instruct barristers for final hearings or contested hearings.
Cases vary in length. A typical divorce case takes four to six months but the financial aspects take longer (up to two years if court proceedings are involved). The work can be unpredictable. I had a call from a client at 6.00 am recently telling me her husband had taken their child; I was in court that afternoon asking for an urgent order to return the child.
Family lawyers are not office bound. The job involves travelling to see other lawyers, for training days or to meet clients. Some months I’m in court once every few weeks; other times I have a week in court on a big case or a number of back-to-back cases.
It’s not a nine-to-five job: some days I get away at 5.00 pm; others I stay until 8.00 pm or later if a client needs meeting or in the run up to a trial. It’s a stressful and demanding job so when you work long days, it’s important to have downtime afterwards.
The court work, teamwork and clients involved as a family law solicitor
The upsides to family law include the opportunities to litigate in court and the collegiality of working in teams. Also, family lawyers deal with a broad spectrum of clients. Recently my trainee and I met with an ex-contestant from a well-known TV programme one day and someone with vast inherited private wealth the next. Meeting such a range of people is fascinating – clients tell you things they won’t tell their best friends. Lawyers have privileged access into their lives at a vulnerable time.
The challenge is distancing yourself from difficult situations – you are a client’s legal adviser not their friend. You have to be able to deliver bad news to your client, such as when the law isn’t on their side. Legal aid cuts mean we might have to deal with a client’s partner directly – someone you don’t have a professional relationship with but who has chosen to act as a litigant in person.
Pre-nuptial agreements are not 100 per cent binding but the law has moved on dramatically in recent years. A 2010 Supreme Court case, Radmacher v. Granatino, decided that unless prenuptial agreements are entirely unfair they should be upheld. The message was strong: if clients think they could benefit from having a pre-nuptial agreement, they should have one. The Law Commissioner has recommended that the law should be changed for both pre-nuptial agreements and nofault divorces but the government may have bigger matters to focus on in the run up to the UK’s exit from the EU.
How recession-proof is this area of legal practice?
Lives move on whether there’s a recession or not. When the banking crisis happened, family lawyers became busier. Clients find a way to pay their family lawyer.
How will Brexit affect law firms' family departments?
A lot of law we use is purely domestic but the UK’s exit from the EU may well affect issues such as jurisdiction and there may be an impact for international clients or those based in the EU. We need to wait and see.
Read TARGETjobs' advice on how to talk about Brexit in a training contract interview here.
What sort of work do trainee solicitors do?
There’s a lot of early responsibility, and exposure to courts and clients, for trainee solicitors. Trainees attend client meetings with a partner or associate and speak to clients on a day-to-day basis. They draft court papers, write letters, prepare statements, put together briefs to counsel (barristers), and support colleagues in court.
Types of law practised
- Private client.
Good family law solicitors have…
- The empathy to ensure clients will put their trust in you.
- An aptitude for advocacy.
- Negotiation skills.
- Tenacity – clients need to know you are on their side. Sometimes that means standing up to an angry client or managing their expectations.
- The analytical skills to find undisclosed assets in a set of accounts or bank statements.
- Good organisational skills. It’s sometimes difficult to plan your day in advance or get to the tasks at the bottom of the pile.
TERESA DAVIDSON is a partner and heads up the Leeds family law team at IRWIN MITCHELL LLP. She graduated from York University in 1992 with a degree in philosophy and politics.