by: Dean Lisa Key

When people think of practicing family law, they typically think of representing individuals in divorces. While divorce cases may make up most of a family law attorney’s practice, the practice of family law often includes other matters, such as adoptions, surrogacy arrangements, grandparents’ rights, guardianships, pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, paternity establishment, domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, and termination of parental rights.

Each state has its own laws governing family relationships. These laws address such things as property rights of spouses, presumptions regarding paternity, factors considered when determining custody, how spousal maintenance and child support are calculated, and the circumstances under which a parent’s rights may be terminated. Although there are some uniform acts relating to jurisdiction in child support, custody and adoption matters, on most family law matters, states vary widely in their approaches.

In order to provide competent advice on questions of property division, alimony, and child support, family law attorneys must be familiar with real estate, tax, employee benefits and insurance laws. They must also be comfortable handling financial matters, including deciphering investment documents, understanding and analyzing business valuations, and determining parties’ short-term and long-term financial needs.

When handling cases involving custody, adoption and termination of parental rights, an understanding of human development and the needs of children is critical. In addition, because family law attorneys work closely with their clients during what is often the most emotionally difficult time in their lives, it is imperative that they have superior communication and counseling skills. A background in psychology or social work, and a strong desire to help people work through personal problems, is beneficial.

Most family law cases are settled out of court, often through mediation. Therefore, family law practitioners need to be adept at negotiation and settlement techniques. However, they also must have excellent litigation skills in order to ably represent their client in court if necessary.

Family law attorneys are often solo practitioners, although a number work in small or mid-size firms. Although there are some opportunities for family law attorneys to work for the government, in child support enforcement or in connection with child abuse and neglect cases for example, the majority of family law attorneys are in private practice. Skills needed by family law attorneys include:

  • Counseling skills
  • The ability to empathize with the problems of others
  • An extraordinary amount of patience
  • The ability to remain objective and not become personally involved in clients’ lives or cases
  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • Negotiation and persuasion skills
  • Ability to communicate effectively with clients in stressful situations
  • Good organizational skills
  • Advocacy skills