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Choosing a new practice area: Consider family law

by Carolyn Elefant on December 14, 2011 · 6 comments

in Practice Areas

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The following is a guest post by Roy S. Ginsburg.

As an attorney coach, I often counsel lawyers who are considering a move to a new practice area – helping them balance the pros and cons of such career choices. One overlooked area I often recommend is family law.

Lawyers often object to the idea of family law. Most of you didn’t go to law school to be divorce lawyers. Most of you believe that the clients can be difficult. After all, divorce is an emotional business. Most of you believe that your skills as an attorney can be put to better use than deciding who gets the fine china.

As an experienced lawyer coach, let me ask you to challenge these beliefs and think again. Most people go to law school because they want to help people, get into court and work on sophisticated issues. All of these needs can be satisfied by a career in family law.

Make a difference

Many lawyers went to law school to help people and “make a difference.” No matter what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not the same as individuals. Helping corporations make more money will never be as personally fulfilling as helping individuals resolve problems in their daily lives. When a soon-to-be-ex wants to restrict visitation with the children, a lawyer’s work to ensure more frequent visits surely makes a real and significant difference to the party you represent.

Go to court

Family law is a litigation-based practice. Any family law practitioner will tell you that he or she spends far more time in court than any commercial litigator. Family law is replete with motions to draft and argue, and cases that do not settle require full-blown trials.

Work on sophisticated issues

Family law disputes are not limited to who gets the fine china. Successful family law attorneys with wealthy clients deal with complicated business as well as family law issues. The recent McCourt divorce case, for example, contained many fascinating legal issues. Was the post-nuptial agreement valid? How do you value the Los Angeles Dodgers? Who gets control of the team going forward? Issues like these are sophisticated enough to whet the appetite of any talented attorney.

Consider the prospects

When coaching attorneys in the selection of a new practice area, I ask them to carefully consider two things: short- and long-term prospects and competition.

Forty to 50 percent of marriages in theUnited Statesend in divorce – and I doubt that these numbers will change much in the foreseeable future. The long-term prospects in family law are excellent. Other factors leading to growth in this segment are the issues raised by the rapidly growing areas of assisted reproduction and same-sex marriage.

Assess the competition

If you take a cursory look, there certainly appear to be a lot of family law attorneys in virtually all markets – small, medium or large. But if you dig deeper and take a more careful look, the picture soon changes.

Many lawyers who say they are divorce attorneys are not specialists; many actually dislike this work and only accept it when not much else is walking in the door. As a result, they are not very good at this area of law. They are not at the top of their game. You can easily stand out from this crowd by handling divorces on a full-time basis.

Try this exercise. Create a short list of the truly talented family law attorneys who practice in your town or metropolitan area.  It will probably be short.  Now, create a short list of the talented commercial and business litigators.  It will be much, much longer.  If you want to rise to the top as “the best and the brightest” on one of these lists, there is much less competition in the area of family law.

Family law is not for everyone, but for some – especially those who want to help people, be in the courtroom and deal with sophisticated issues – it can be the path to a rewarding and lucrative career.  Isn’t that why you went to law school in the first place?

Roy Ginsburg is an attorney coach in the areas of business development, practice management and career development/transitions. He helps his nationwide clients achieve individualized practice goals and career satisfaction. He is also a solo practitioner and practices in the area of legal marketing ethics. His clients include FindLaw and Super Lawyers magazine, Thomson Reuters businesses.  www.royginsburg.com

 

 

 

  • Susan Cartier Liebel

    Family law was exactly what I practiced right out of law school and did so precisely for the connection with people, the broad creativity, the variety of very complex issues and it’s pulse on what was happening in society. There were challenges, for sure. But it also was filled with reward and even fun!

  • Elizabethp

    When a client hugs you and says “thanks for listening” after just the first meeting, you know you are making a difference.   Sure family law has it moments when you want to scream.   But seeing a parent with their child that has been withheld from that parent makes up for those moments.    

  • http://www.minsberglaw.com Susan Minsberg

    As an attorney who practices in commercial litigation and family law, I have to respectfully disagree with a couple of things Roy said.  First, family law is now, at least in Minnesota, less and less of a litigation based practice.  The Courts use initial case management conferences, early neutral evaluations for social and financial issues and mediation.  Second, I know many very talented family law lawyers.  Sometimes family law lawyers are under the radar and do not get the respect they deserve. 

  • Gcklaw

    I have two points to make.  First, in recent weeks I have resolved two family law cases and two personal injury cases.  I believe I have made a more favorable impact on the family law clients than on the personal injury clients, thus creating a more rewarding and worthwhile experience for me as an attorney.
    Secondly, the part of the article recommending that the reader makes a list of the family practitioners and another list of commercial litigators is one of the best suggestions I have read on the topic of practice area selection.  These two lists as suggested show the lack of competition in the area of family law.  But here is what else they show – make a list of personal injury practitioners as well and you will see that they family law list is still much smaller than the personal injury lawyer list.  Great article!

  • Guest

    Divorce is not a good small law area anymore and one should not “specialize” in divorce, for the following reasons:

    1.  In most jurisdictions, divorce lawyers are allowed to take a lien on the family house. During the real estate bubble, divorce lawyers would run the meter until the unreasonable parties drained the equity.  Then the house would be sold, and the divorce lawyers walk away with a big payday.  Today, there is no equity in houses, so people can’t afford divorce lawyers.  I see divorce lawyers scrambling in criminal and traffic court to pay the bills.

    2. Divorce is a huge pain in the ass. Divorce is constant emergencies which are great for draining the retainer but interfere with other work. Clients always grieve attorneys.  It is only worth it for lots of money (see #1 above).  

    3.  The tone of this blog post is that former big law attorneys (business and commercial litigators) who are now solo will barge into state court, which is filled with hacks, and quickly become the top divorce litigators because they know complex litigation.  This is a charming combination of arrogance and naiveté.  Divorce is not patent litigation. You don’t win on summary judgment motions combining complex issues of law with complex scientific and economic facts.  A divorce victory consists of  pitching the judge to give you the money and the kids.  The legal issues are not complex and the judge’s most important decisions are not reviewable on appeal.  If  your plan is to be a “top litigator” representing rich people getting divorced, you need to cultivate good relationships with the judges.  This takes many years of practice.  A big law flunky won’t just barge in and be a “top litigator” because she knows how to write a summary judgment motion.

    The best strategy is to learn the basic small law practice areas, including divorce. For divorces, take the biggest retainer that you can and try to settle it reasonable amicably so that the client is happy and will refer you to others.  If that doesn’t happen, burn the retainer and withdraw quickly.  You won’t easily get rich people’s divorces, so you need to balance it with other practice areas in order to make money. 

  • guest

    Here in Minnesota family law is a very, very saturated area of law. Everybody and their brother and sister it seems is a practicing family law attorney. The four unnecessary law factories in the Twin Cities keep churning out hundreds of unemployed new attorneys every year that are willing to work for peanuts because they can’t find a job. They almost inevitably turn to practicing family law or criminal law. It’s ridiculous.

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