Family law: area of practice

Family lawyers have to be confidants, investigators, litigators, negotiators and drafting experts, explains Nathaniel Groarke – a partner at Irwin Mitchell LLP.

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Family law is fast paced; it is contentious and emotions can run high.

Family law covers all aspects of a relationship, from dividing up the family assets to putting in place appropriate arrangements for children. Increasingly, it deals with wealth protection, through pre- and postnuptial agreements. Family law also covers high-profile, publicly-funded and complex childcare cases. There is no typical client; anyone can need the help of a family lawyer.

What does a typical case in family law look like?

A typical case can involve analysis of family finances, which can mean delving into twelve months of bank statements, trying to trace assets strewn across the world or liaising with experts who can advise on how best to meet a child’s needs. Most cases are resolved within 6 to 12 months, although sometimes cases can last for years. The number of cases you work on will depend on the area you work in. In my field, which is generally financial cases, solicitors will have anywhere between 15 and 30 live cases. These cases can range from highly contested court cases dividing up complex assets, to more amicable pre-nuptial negotiations.

Teams usually comprise a partner or senior associate assisted by a solicitor or junior member of the team. Family cases often touch on a number of legal issues (for example, property sales, employment issues or complex tax arrangements) and so working with other departments is common.

What is working life like for a family lawyer?

The hours can be long in the run up to an important hearing and emergencies may mean conversations late in an evening or over a weekend. These are the exception rather than the norm. At other times, historically in the summer months, work can be more predictable and you can be out of the office by 5.30 pm.

A family lawyer might have to be a confidant, investigator, litigator, negotiator, advocate and drafting expert, all in the same week. This variety makes the job interesting. However, the downside is that cases can suddenly take a turn for the worse. Humans are unpredictable and dealing with this, and explaining developing challenges to clients, can be very hard.

What developments in family law do trainees need to know about?

The grounds for divorce have generated plenty of press interest recently. Currently, the process is fault-based, ie one party has to be at fault, unless the parties have been separated for years. The government has announced new legislation to reform this process.

As society changes, so too must family law adapt. Often the legislation is slow to catch up to the prevailing societal views and so family lawyers need to keep abreast of developments to ensure clients don’t fall into commonly held misconceptions. For example, there is no such thing as a ‘common-law spouse’, despite what you might read in the press.

What will a trainee lawyer in a family law department do?

Trainees often get involved in cases at an early stage. They can attend court with a barrister and a client, draft applications and statements, and be involved in the preparation of cases for hearings (which can range from preparing the court bundle to instructing the right barrister). There is plenty of opportunity for early responsibility. Of course, trainees are constantly supervised and, with that support structure in place, there is no reason why they cannot contact clients, attend hearings and generally get a full understanding of how family law works.

Family law is fast paced; it is contentious and emotions can run high. Lawyers deal with people often at their lowest ebb. It is an exciting area of law that will stretch and challenge you.

What skills do family lawyers need?

  • Compassion.
  • Problem solving skills.
  • Negotiation skills.
  • An eye for spotting deals.

Types of law practised

  • Family.
  • Trusts.
  • Contract (pre-nuptial agreements).
  • Pensions.
  • Private client.
  • Property.
  • Insolvency.
  • Commercial.
  • International.

NATHANIEL GROARKE is a partner and head of the Manchester family department at IRWIN MITCHELL LLP . He graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2004 with a degree in history.

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