16 Nov Tips for Young Lawyers Practicing in Family Law
The Law Society of South Australia – BULLETIN ARTICLE OCTOBER 2018
Tips for Young Lawyers Practicing in Family Law
I remember my first family law file well. Whilst my other files sat neatly in their tidy manilla folders, the family law matter was spread across my office floor in a series of archive boxes. One of my first tasks was to inspect and copy subpoena material from the Department for Child Protection. I arrived at the Registry expecting to find a few documents and was somewhat stunned when the clerk asked me which box I wanted to look at first. I spent most of the next two weeks sifting through the boxes of material which contained all kinds of hideous and confronting information.
Family law is often complicated and stressful. However, it is interesting and rewarding and there is never a dull moment. As a newly admitted lawyer, I was fortunate enough to have good support around me at my office but no one can manufacture years of experience. I have put together some basic tips which I don’t profess to be exhaustive but you might find them helpful if you are a young lawyer practising in family law.
- Giving parenting advice is a huge responsibility and needs to extend beyond just giving your clients a lecture about the Family Law Act 1975. It is important to help your clients to understand the benefit of a long term approach. Remember that just because parties end their relationship it does not mean that they stop being “mum and dad”. Co-parents will usually maintain some form of connection for the rest of their child’s life and it is important to recognise that although parties might walk away from their dispute with a set of Orders from a Court, that does not mean it is going to be easy for them to implement those Orders on a daily basis. There are lots of resources online that are free and easy to access. Encourage your clients to undertake parenting courses and to inform themselves about their child’s developmental needs and the benefit of the child sharing a relationship with both parents and their extended families, if it is safe for them to do so.
- Your ongoing education should not be limited to the Family Law Act 1975. There is a lot of value in working with social scientists to learn about human behaviour and how people deal with conflict. You can also learn a lot about yourself and your own stress responses or triggers in the process. Soft skills learned in negotiation, mediation, and Collaborative practice are very helpful when communicating with clients and other lawyers. This is particularly so in the area of family law where high levels of emotion are at the forefront of many matters, and emotion is often the impediment to matters settling. You are not expected to be a social worker or psychologist but be mindful of what your clients are going through on an emotional level and pay attention to how you respond to and deal with them.
The same points with respect to education apply in property settlement matters. Invest in your own learning if your employer doesn’t support it. You won’t regret it. If you want to be a good family lawyer, you need to learn about all sorts of things including corporate structures, tax, trusts, estates, and superannuation so that you can identify possible taxation events or other issues when you are negotiating settlements. You will have a hard time winning your clients’ confidence if you don’t understand the difference between a company and a trust, particularly if you are dealing with high net-worth individuals. Reach out to your client’s accountant and make the most of that person’s expertise and knowledge of the client’s financial affairs and structures.
- Always be mindful of costs not just from the perspective of whether your firm is going to be paid for the work you do, but also in terms of whether it’s in your client’s interests to spend thousands of dollars arguing over less than that. I regularly ask my clients whether the juice is worth the squeeze. Family law matters have a tendency to ramp up. Don’t get caught up in emotionally charged disputes about kettles, couches or anything else that isn’t worth it in the long term. Your clients will often thank you for taking a cost-conscious approach once they have calmed down about who kept the tea towels they received for an engagement present 10 years ago. It is important to be an advocate for your client but to also be realistic.
- Be prepared to hear about strange addictions and habits and maintain your professionalism. Even when you think you’ve heard it all, there are weirder behaviours that you will encounter. Admittedly, when I was at law school I did not think I would be dealing with scatophiles. In fact, I don’t think I even knew what scatophilia I’ve now had three matters involving scatophilia and, much to my horror, my colleagues are quick to tell others about my apparent expertise in poo collection! Work on your poker face and maintain it when clients share their sensitive information, including when you haven’t asked them to share it, or when it’s totally irrelevant!
- Client management is difficult but your clients aren’t paying you to tell them what they want to hear and they will often appreciate sensible advice down the track even if they don’t appear to be very happy about it at the time. Try not to become so aligned with your client that you aren’t hearing what’s coming from the other side. It is incredibly important that you don’t give your clients the impression that you can guarantee them an outcome – you have a law degree, not a magic wand!
- Hold your ground with difficult or intimidating opponents. Be willing to make some compromises but don’t sell your clients down the river. If you feel that you are too intimidated by the lawyer on the other side, that should not disadvantage your client. There are long term consequences for your client (and possibly also for you) if you get things wrong. Ask questions and seek assistance from the senior lawyers at your office, or from a barrister. If you can’t do that, contact one of the Law Society’s support groups – the Young Lawyers Support Group is a fantastic service that provides assistance to many young lawyers in relation to a broad range of issues.
- Don’t take your clients’ problems home with you. Although it’s important to care about your clients, you need to remember that their issues have usually arisen as a result of choices they have made, and there is only so much you can do to assist (see above re the magic wand). You won’t do your client any favours if you are just as emotionally invested in the dispute as they are. Family law can be draining so it’s also important that you take care of yourself, and make time to switch off and recharge your batteries.