Family law is often seen as the area that deals with “real people”. It is very client-facing, and usually involves working with people who are undergoing turmoil in their personal lives.
Matters are very varied because no two clients have experienced exactly the same issues.
“Many people think family law must simply mean divorce. Actually, it is any subject that touches on a family, including family breakdown, surrogacy, and trust disputes,” says Barbara Reeves, a partner in Mishcon de Reya’s family department.
“Primarily it’s a forward-looking area of law, concerned with social needs and judgments. It involves many elements that you might not deal with in other areas. Clients tell you facts they’ve never told their friends and family.”
Strong personal skills are a must, but an ability to keep professional distance and give tough advice is equally important.
“Unlike my friends who went off to work for big corporate firms, I have a lot of interaction with real people,” says Julian Ribet, a partner at family law boutique Levison Meltzer Pigott. “You are meeting clients at a very difficult time in their lives and that can be quite challenging but you are hopefully setting them on a road to a happy future with all these issues resolved.”
Life in practice
“Every day is different and unpredictable,” says Withers partner Michael Gouriet, describing life in practice as “sailing in a storm”.
“It’s so emotionally draining for clients and you have no control over what the other side is doing. You are forced to deal with unexpected complications,” he says.
Family practitioners often end up straddling other areas of law due to the varied issues involved in their cases.
“When a couple gets divorced the related areas that you’re going to encounter are property law, because they are likely to own or rent a property, tax laws because disposal of assets means tax consequences, and business or company law because people may have interest in business. You may also encounter trusts,” Gouriet explains.
Cases sometimes include dealing with foreign lawyers, such as when one party in a divorce wants to move abroad with their children. Clients may also have property in other countries.
The most difficult divorce cases involve children, Ribet says. Sometimes parents will use their kids as bargaining chips, or one party will want to move abroad, making it very difficult for the other to maintain frequent contact with their children.
“The hardest are leave to remove cases because ultimately they decide where the child lives for the rest of their life,” he says.
Yet the job can also be very rewarding, particularly when the lawyer is able to see a client through to a happier place.
“Quite regularly you have people tell you, ‘I’m never going to get married again’, and then a couple of years later you get a phone call saying ‘Can I have my decree absolute because I am getting remarried again, I’ve met someone else’,” says Ribet. “That’s a nice part of the job.”
What skills are needed?
Empathy is vitally important for a family lawyer because they often deal with clients who are undergoing traumatic changes to their lives.
“You have to be good at listening,” says Ribet. “You have to try and put yourself in their position. Even if you’ve heard similar things before from other clients, for them it’s the first time they’re going through it and it’s like a massive bereavement.”
Yet Reeves warns against becoming too emotionally involved in client issues. It’s no good simply being a good listener, she says, because you are being hired to find realistic solutions for your client.
“You don’t want to fall into becoming a counsellor for your client. It’s very easy for you to feel like you’re the client’s best friend, but primarily you’re the legal advisor. Be sensitive, empathetic but maintain appropriate boundaries about the relationship that you have.”
Family lawyers often have to deliver difficult blows, particularly when it comes to their clients’ finances following divorce or separation.
“Most people take a downward move in their finances because they’re having to run two homes out of the same pocket. You have to be realistic right from the outset, such as telling people the court will probably sell their home,” says Ribet.
A thick skin is essential. Clients often take out their frustration on their own lawyer, when really they are venting against the other party and their legal advisor.
“Clients will often lash out at whoever’s there,” Gouriet says. “You can be a bit of a thumping board. You don’t want to get too drawn into the case and only believe the client’s story is right.”
What’s happening in the field?
Family law continuously undergoes major reform. In July 2016 the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators (IFLA) introduced ‘the children scheme’ to cover relocation issues and disputes over how much time children should live with each parent. Gouriet is of the opinion that this is a good thing, and has helped address congestion in the court process and delays in solving cases.
A number of influential cases in the past five years have contributed to changes in the field, adds Ribet, citing a Supreme Court case from November 2015 where Alison Sharland and Varsha Gohil won against their ex-husbands because the men had hidden the extent of their wealth during divorce settlements. The ruling was significant because it indicated that financial assets should be divided based on “valid agreement”.
Yet many in the field believe that vital changes must be made to better cater to issues clients are facing today.
“Family law needs an overhaul,” says Ribet. “Its main piece of legislation which governs how we divide assets in divorce was enacted in 1973 – 40-odd years ago.”
One of the most pressing issues is the need for no fault divorce. “It is really quite important,” Gouriet says, adding that the current system means cases are “kicked off in quite a difficult way.”
“We have an old, jurassical approach to the divorce process which requires one person to blame the other for the breakdown of the marriage,” says Ribet. “That’s a surefire way not to start the process well. You want people to work together, have a relationship and still be talking for the benefit of their children.”
Cohabitation is another current issue, as there is no proper law for dealing with resolution of financial issues in cohabitees.
The trainee’s role
Trainees in family law are often able to gain plenty of hands-on experience. They tend to be involved in drafting documentation and, depending on the firm, sitting in on client meetings.
“As a trainee, you are relatively close to the decision making. You are often involved in client meetings, which usually involve one partner, one assistant and one trainee. You are actually contributing by preparing initial draft documentation, you’re gaining skills quite quickly,”Gouriet says.
Reeves warns that it is important for trainees to keep an open mind and stay flexible about the areas of law they might pursue, even within family law. Firms with large departments often need people to cover more than one area within a field.
“I find new trainees often have very fixed views,” she says. “Within family law, it might sound sensible to say you just want to focus on financial or children work if you have certain strengths. But if you’re working in a larger department, you’re never sure what you’re going to be doing. We have clients who want to be advised on all sorts of areas.”
“It could be as wide ranging as divorce to trust disputes – an area which trainees may not pick up on as falling under family law – some form of injunction, to a surrogacy agreement that you may need to draft.”
Which firms cover family law?
A variety of firms cover family law. For some large commercial outfits, such as Withers, Mishcon, and Charles Russell Speechlys, family is a major department. At other big firms it is just a smaller part of a private client services division. These firms tend to act mainly for high-net-worth individuals where millions of pounds are being fought over.
There are also a number of mid-market and boutique firms which specialise in the seat but still work on high profile cases, while plenty of high street firms take on the family matters of ordinary people.