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Family law: area of practice

Family law solicitors need the ability to be quick thinkers, as this area is legally complex and changing all the time, explains Nigel from Mills & Reeve.
The nature of family law work has changed due to legal aid cuts, the economic climate and the availability of free information.

The essence of most family law work is helping people through a difficult time in their life and advising them on the issues that arise. Family law is a broad church: it includes divorce, marital agreements, adoption, surrogacy, private child matters, care proceedings and financial matters. Most family lawyers choose to specialise, although many will deal with more than one of these diverse areas.

A family lawyer’s workload depends on the size of the firm and the type of work being done. In more complex or higher value financial cases in the bigger firms, usually lawyers will work in teams to ensure work is done at an appropriate level to make the case cost-effective for the client. The timescale to get some cases finished can depend on the amount of disagreement; a case could be over quickly if there is a good measure of agreement or it could take over a year if the case has to go to court.

Family law, like most areas of practice, is busy. The core hours may perhaps be 8.30 am to 5.30 pm, but some firms will have evening and weekend surgeries to be flexible for clients. Generally the hours can be less anti-social than in some other areas of law, as there are not all-night stints; the nature of the work usually allows you to have a decent work/life balance.

How have legal aid cuts affected family law practice?

The government cut legal aid in 2013 for most private family law cases; this affects people that are going through a divorce and need advice on financial and child matters, for example. The lack of funding put pressure on some family law firms, as some people can no longer afford the advice. Individuals are now choosing to take on their cases themselves with help from the internet, as free information is more accessible. Some clients go to lawyers for advice on an ad-hoc basis, for example guidance on how to fill in a form, rather than working with them for the whole case.

How recession-proof is family law?

With the legal aid cuts, the economic climate and the availability of free information, the nature of work has changed. Although people can access information online, they may not know how to apply the advice to their specific situation. This means court cases can take longer, as people are applying information incorrectly. The family lawyer has to manage costs, negotiate and delegate work accordingly to attract clients and make cases cost-effective.

What sort of work are trainees given during a family law seat? 

A trainee can be more involved with clients directly in family law; it is usually more hands on than in other seats, where the work may be more abstract. Typical tasks for trainees include attending client meetings, taking notes, researching and feeding it back to team meetings, and they may have the chance to attend court. There are opportunities for early responsibilities, which will be under supervision.

Types of law practised

  • Family.
  • Property.
  • Tax.
  • Trusts and estates.
  • Contract.

Good family law solicitors have…

  • The ability to deal with people who are in a difficult situation.
  • Professional detachment without losing empathy.
  • Negotiation skills as well as the ability to make strategic decisions.
  • A thick skin, as clients may shout at you due to stress or anger.
  • The ability to be a quick thinker, as this area is legally complex and changing all the time.

Nigel Shepherd is a partner in the family team at Mills & Reeve LLP. He graduated with a degree in law with German from Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester Metropolitan, in 1978.