Family law disputes that are handled in the judicial system include: divorce, separation, adoption, child custody, visitation rights, financial settlements and distribution of assets, domestic violence, guardianship, and child abuse and neglect.

Other matters which are covered by this area of law include: validity of trusts, wills and inheritance laws, deaths, pension, retirements and other benefits, and the coverage and validity of insurance claims.

What does family law involve?

Family law covers a whole range of different disputes and claims. In every case, you will need to review the brief, discuss the case with the parties involved and possibly negotiate and arrange for a settlement.

If there is no settlement, you will proceed with the case, file pleadings and motions as necessary, and argue the case before the court. Small matters tend to be dealt with in county courts, whilst bigger and more complicated cases may be heard in the Family division of the High Court. You will often have to work with a wide number of different people, including some of the most vulnerable people in society, such as children and the elderly.

Most cases will involve input from a variety of people who are associated with the cases in different capacities. Lawyers and support staff will need to liaise and coordinate with professionals such as law enforcement officers, doctors, psychologists, social workers and welfare authorities, in order to deliver a seamless and unanimous argument before the court.

Break it down for me a little bit!

The standard requirements for lawyers in this area are: a good academic record, high proficiency in oral and written communications, good negotiation skills, a disciplined and organised approach to work and a clear and cogent thought process. Time and people management skills are also particularly essential.

Furthermore, when dealing with family law matters, you need to be friendly and empathetic with your clients, understand their issues thoroughly and support and guide them through the whole process. Moreover, you should be able to analyse what strategies and approaches are best suited for each client.

A ‘Day in the Life’ of Sarah Hutchinson, Partner at Farrer & Co.

What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?

Turn on my computer, put on my heels and make a cup of herbal tea.  I will already have reviewed my inbox on my iPhone on the tube so there should be no nasty surprises waiting for me at my desk!

How do you handle and organise / prioritise your workload?

As simple as it sounds, having a 'to do' list on one piece of paper.  It means I can review all of my client, management and practice development matters quickly and easily, and highlight what needs to be done that day. Also I use calendar reminders and try to block out time in my diary for dealing with certain things. That said, an unexpected telephone call or an email from a client can quickly change my workload and my priorities for the day!

 What sort of daily responsibilities does a partner have in family law? How does it differ from an associate role?

  1. Working on and supervising client matters;
  2. Assisting with management of the team and the firm (e.g.  working with the graduate recruitment team, being part of the firm's Diversity & Inclusion group)
  3. Developing and implementing practice development initiatives not just for the team but also the firm (e.g. speaking at conferences, attending events).

Although an associate might be involved in much of this as well, they will predominately be busy with client matters.  As a partner you have more responsibility with client matters, but also significantly more involvement in management and practice development.

Can you give us an idea of the sort of projects you manage from day to day? Which aspect of family law is dealt with most frequently by Farrer & Co?

The majority of our family team's work is in relation to a marital or relationship breakdown, including when matters are contentious and non-contentious.  Our team works to resolve the financial aspects, which are often complex and have an international dimension, and also the arrangements for any children, including who they live with, when they see each parent, what school they go to, for example.

Sometimes there are matters relating to the financial arrangements and/or children that arise years after the relationship breakdown, such as one person wanting to vary part of the financial agreement/order, or one parent wanting to move abroad and take the children with them, or grandparents wishing to spend more time with their grandchildren. 

We also act for clients in the earlier stages of relationships, drafting pre and post nuptial agreements as well as cohabitation agreements. 

I recently qualified as a mediator and we have a number of mediators in our team; mediators act for both parties to assist them in resolving a dispute together through a series of meetings.

What sort of clients do you generally deal with on a day-to-day basis?

My clients are landowners, entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers and other professionals and homemakers, with an equal balance of men and women.  I find this wide variety of clients (and their different perspectives and approaches) particularly interesting.

Day in the life of a Family Associate at Ambrose Appelbe

I usually get to the office between 8.30 and 9.00am, but earlier if I have a morning hearing or meeting that I need to prepare for. While my computer starts up, I boil the kettle for a cup of tea in my over-sized mug. I often get distracted from the tea-making by an email that has come in from a client and have to re-boil the water. Eco-conscious colleagues tell me off.

The majority of the emails I receive are from clients, often updating me on recent events or seeking advice. The greatest proportion of my workload is divorce and the finances associated with a divorce (known as ancillary relief), but I also deal with private children disputes, pre-nups, post-nups and cohabitation matters. I represent high-net worth individuals and run many of my own files, but I also assist the managing partner with the more complex cases. 

My clients’ finances are often complicated which requires me to understand much more than just family law;  pensions, trusts, tax, off-shore assets and company structures are often integral to my cases.

The nature of my work means that my clients are often upset or angry about their circumstances and it is important that they can easily contact me for advice. Their concerns can be very serious, such as the other parent not returning the child at the agreed time causing my client to fear kidnapping. I have to react quickly to deal with such matters and in these instances those tasks I planned for my day fall by the wayside.

Once a week we have an internal budget meeting which is attended by all the fee-earners in the firm. We are told whether each department has met its weekly billing targets and we discuss new clients. The trainees (there are usually two in the firm) often brief us on relevant developments in the law.

Lunch is usually between 13.00 and 14.00. My firm is small but very social and, as I trained there, I know everyone well. On a sunny day a few of us will sit on the grass in Lincoln’s Inn (the location of my office), but for most of the year we squeeze into one office with our sandwiches.

I attend court every one or two weeks, usually with a barrister. The court prefers people to agree family disputes and usually lists negotiation hearings where the court cannot impose a decision but encourages the parties to reach an agreement. These hearings can last all day and, if agreement is not reached, I leave court with a large list of things I have to do to progress the case to the next hearing, such as obtaining expert evidence or drafting a witness statements. If I have been at court all day, I will return to a flurry of emails and telephone messages to deal with.

We do not have direct telephone lines and our reception closes at 17.30. This is the time I will often set aside to draft complex documents or pour over large disclosure from the other side as I know I will not be interrupted by phone calls. 

I tend to leave work at around 18.30. If I have more work to do, I will log on to my work computer at home so I can meet friends after work, rather than make them wait around for me.

Daily Diary

08:30

Arrive at the office, deal with emails.  Check diary and plan day.

09:30

Check DX and deal with anything urgent.

10:00

Dictate letters and documents, make phone calls to clients, other side, counsel etc.

12:30

Internal budget meeting.

13:00

Lunch.

14:00

Attend court.

16:30

Back from court – deal with emails and telephone messages.

18:30

Leave the office.

19:00

Attend CPD lecture.

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