If you've heard there are too many lawyers around, then you haven't
been talking to family lawyers. The fact is, many family lawyers have got
their plates full and there's plenty of room at the table for more of them.
"I think there's a huge demand," says family lawyer Darrin Clayton. "There
has been since I began practicing, and I'm in my 14th year."
Family lawyers such as Clayton deal mostly with divorces and separations.
They draft cohabitation, marriage and separation agreements (typically in
that order). When a marriage breaks down, they help sort out the division
of property (dividing things and money between the two people) and help clients
deal with highly emotional issues such as visitation rights and custody of
The fact that more family lawyers are needed means those who are practicing
in this area of law have their hands full.
"Anybody who I know... who's competent in family law is extremely busy,"
says Clayton. "I don't think there's anybody out there chasing work. It's
one of the areas of law where it just kind of falls into your lap."
Why are family lawyers in such demand? You can probably guess the answer.
The demand is high because separations and divorces happen all the time.
"I think it just mirrors society," says Clayton. "It used to be that people
would stick it out through thick and thin for 40 years and maybe not have
a great marriage but they would stick to it, and now they pull the plug a
Gregg Herman agrees. He's a family lawyer in Wisconsin and chair of the
family law section of the American Bar Association. The family law section
has more than 10,000 members from across North America and internationally.
"As the saying goes, bad news for society is good news for lawyers," says
Herman. "It would be better for society if divorce rates went down, but they're
staying relatively stable."
Herman says there is mixed news when it comes to demand for family lawyers.
On the up side, lawyers can be relieved that divorce seems to be recession
"It doesn't seem that the rates of divorce go down when the economy fails,
perhaps because economic difficulty increases marital stress and leads to
divorce," says Herman. "So on the good side in terms of the need for family
law attorneys, it appears that [demand] is going to be ongoing.
"On the downside," Herman adds, "there has been a significant increase
in the amount of pro se litigation in this field."
Pro se means people representing themselves in court. Herman says
that a few years ago, people represented themselves in 10 to 20 percent of
family law cases, but in some locations today the number is as high as 75
to 80 percent.
"That has created a reduction in the amount of business available for divorce
lawyers," says Herman, "but like with every field, if it's something that
someone is good at and they can find the right niche and position, then there
will always be jobs available."
Change and upheaval are sources of tremendous grief for clients, but it
means family lawyers are kept busy helping those clients pick up the pieces.
A family lawyer can get a lot of repeat business if he or she has developed
a trusting relationship with a client. Ironically, the lawyer-client relationship
might be the most long-term, stable relationship the client has.
"There's more of a tendency to separate and a tendency to get hooked back
up again fairly quickly, so I've had several clients where I've represented
them in multiple separations," says Clayton.
"I've probably got 200 files open at any given time. I've got about 10
where I'm representing them from the first separation and before we're even
done that they've already separated in their second relationship."
There are additional factors behind the demand for family lawyers. For
example, true to their name, common-law relationships are increasingly common.
A common-law relationship is one in which people live together without being
legally married. People might be quicker to walk away from these types of
relationships, says Clayton.
But despite the lack of a marriage certificate, there can be serious legal
issues that need to be sorted out, especially if the couple has a child. Same-sex
relationships also raise legal issues, and the law is still evolving in terms
of rights and responsibilities in this area.
Those are some of the reasons for the strong demand for family lawyers.
But there is also an issue of supply. Not enough young lawyers are choosing
to start out in family law, says Clayton.
"I think there is a feeling among many members of the bar, and [among]
judges, that family law is a poor area of practice and it doesn't have a good
reputation," says Clayton. "A lot of people would rather do civil litigation
or corporate work rather than deal with divorces."
Some lawyers look down on family law because it is very much about people
and facts. In other words, it is not as much about constructing elaborate
legal arguments as it is about applying the law to the facts of each case
and getting people to talk to each other.
Because emotions can be intense in family law cases, a family lawyer is
sometimes more of a psychologist than a lawyer. This might be why Clayton
enjoys his work so much -- he originally planned to be a clinical psychologist.
He applied to law school after his application to a graduate program in psychology
"I didn't get in, so I ended up going to law school," says Clayton. "Before
that, I worked with young offenders, so I've always had that sort of social
work bent to me and I enjoy working with people.
"I like working with the law, but I like working with people more. And
in family law, you do a lot more people work than you do legal work. If you
have that social work leaning, then I think you'll enjoy this area more."
Some lawyers shy away from family law because of the nature of the cases.
Divorces can be nasty. Emotions run high and children are often used as pawns
in the conflict. The anger and disappointment of a failed relationship can
bring out the worst in people. Dealing with this every day is not for everybody.
Family lawyers are increasingly involved in mediation and collaborative
family law. These are approaches designed to avoid the cost, time, and stress
With mediation, a lawyer or other person acting as mediator helps the parties
(couple) reach an agreement. The actual decisions are made by the parties,
not the mediator. If mediation fails, then the fallback position is typically
to proceed to a trial.
With collaborative family law, the lawyers for each client agree to work
together to resolve the issues in a non-confrontational way. They also agree
that if the process fails, then they will not represent the client at trial
(the client will have to get a new lawyer), and that any discussions that
took place during the process cannot be later revealed at that trial.
"People have heard the horror stories and they know they don't want the
divorce from hell," says Clayton. "That's why the good mediators are extremely
busy. And that's why there's a thirst for collaborative family law too, which
is a fairly new kid on the block. If you have training in those areas, I think
you're ahead of the game."
Family lawyers tend to work as sole practitioners or at small firms that
specialize in one type of law.
"Typically, they're hired by boutique firms, meaning those firms that
specialize in the area or smaller law firms," says Warren Bongard. He's the
vice-president of a legal recruitment firm.
"There's a growing trend at larger national firms away from family law,"
"If you went in to every major law firm, you might find one
or two family law lawyers who are servicing the large, executive clients of
the big companies they represent, but they're not out actively trying to expand
that practice area."
Family lawyers charge whatever is typical for their market. Rates are higher
in large cities, and more experienced lawyers charge more than new lawyers.
"If you have really good business practices, then you can easily make six
figures," says Clayton.
"There's really a significant range there, and it really comes back to
clients. If you have clients who can afford to pay you and value your services
so they want to pay you, then you're going to make a good living."
Family Law Section: American Bar Association
News and events for the family law section
U.S. Divorce Statistics
The numbers behind the trends
Association of Attorney-Mediators
Check out the Articles and Mediation FAQ sections