Clients Fighting for Family Lawyers The Buzz


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 children.

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 lot earlier."

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 proof.

"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 was rejected.

"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 of trials.

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," says Bongard.

"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."

Links

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