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 Alyson Morrell, Associate at Farrer & Co.
What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?
When I first get into the office I check my emails, make a cup of tea and draw up a to-do list for the day. I typically have quite a few matters on at once and this planning at the beginning of the day helps me to prioritise the tasks I need to accomplish. Whether or not I actually make it through my list depends on how the day goes. If an urgent application comes in, or I have a client who needs something done today, then more likely than not my to-do list changes a bit.
How do you handle and prioritise your workload?
Having a good overview of where my cases are and what is coming up is absolutely crucial. There are usually court deadlines and hearings to prepare for so I need to keep a clear schedule of what to prioritise. I also try to delegate where possible and we have excellent paralegals and secretaries who can help to ease the workload and assist in preparing court bundles, papers for counsel and more routine correspondence.
What sort of daily responsibilities does an associate have in family law? How does it differ from a trainee role?
One of the best things about family law is that my responsibilities change daily. If I am in court one day, I will usually have been the associate who created the court bundle and assisted the partner in preparing for the hearing. I will have attended conferences with counsel, been in constant correspondence with the other side’s solicitors and on the day of the hearing I am there to take notes, help to advise the client and hopefully assist in settlement where possible. When I am not in court, I am often the first point of contact for clients and I attend frequent client meetings, respond to queries and help to draft their applications, agreements and deal with interactions with counterpart solicitors. As a newly qualified associate, a greater degree of responsibility and autonomy is left to me when dealing with clients and running cases. This is both exciting and scary.
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?
We see a wide range of matters in our team at any one time and each case has unique facts and characters. At the moment, I am working on a number of pre-nuptial agreements acting both for clients looking to protect assets and those who are coming to the marriage with very little. Almost all my cases have an international element and as I am dual-qualified in England and the US I typically have quite a few American clients. A lot of my work includes complex financial considerations as part of divorce or separation and negotiating financial settlements for clients. Our cases where we are acting for clients with children often involve an element of parents struggling to agree parenting and living arrangements for their kids. This already quite difficult situation can be compounded by the fact that parents may not live in the same country or are living very international lifestyles.
What kind of clients do you generally deal with on a day-to-day basis?
There really is no typical client in this line of work; it is one of the things I love about family law: the people. However, most of our clients live international lives and have complex financial and property arrangements. All of them are going through one of the more stressful stages in their lives, be it a divorce, a disagreement about their children, or negotiations over financial matters. We are advising and assisting people at a very personal level and during a difficult time, which can make it all the more rewarding to get them through this phase and out the other side.
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.
Arrive at the office, deal with emails. Check diary and plan day.
Check DX and deal with anything urgent.
Dictate letters and documents, make phone calls to clients, other side, counsel etc.
Internal budget meeting.
Back from court – deal with emails and telephone messages.
Leave the office.
Attend CPD lecture.