Family law covers a wide range of issues involving family and domestic relationships. The most common of these issues include (1) divorce, (2) child custody, (3) child support, (4) spousal support, (5) visitation, (6) prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, (7) guardianship, and (8) the termination and establishment of parental rights. A family law attorney may also help clients with legal separations, annulments, adoptions, conservatorship proceedings, and domestic violence issues.
Most family law attorneys work in small firms or as solo practitioners. A family law attorney’s daily tasks include counseling clients, handling phone calls, gathering information, drafting pleadings and briefs, and making court appearances. Because family law cases require regular attention, a family law attorney must be diligent and responsive to clients’ needs. As Neil Forester ’04, an attorney in Downey Brand’s family law division, observes, “The kind of people who tend to gravitate to this area are people who have a lot of empathy, down to earth sort of people who are more interested in resolving conflicts than pushing paper.”
Estate planning attorneys help individuals decide how to distribute their wealth in a way that will carry out their estate distribution goals after they die and minimize taxation, especially taxation arising from estate taxes. Their job may include helping clients create wills, trusts, powers of attorney, powers of appointment, and other devices for apportioning wealth, or some combination thereof. Very often, estate planning attorneys also aid in estate administration and end-of-life planning for their clients. In this role, they might identify, appraise, collect, and distribute their clients' assets after their clients' deaths or they may help their clients create advance health care directives or make arrangements for incapacity. They also aid their clients in the modification of their estate plans—and the modification of any attendant legal documents—to account for changes in their clients' finances, assets, and relationships.
Many estate planning attorneys work with their clients over a long period of time. As a result, it is not unusual for estate planning attorneys to develop close bonds with their clients and to come to know a great deal about the intimate details of their finances and personal lives. Because they advise their clients on a wide variety of issues, estate planning attorneys must be familiar with the laws governing wills, trusts, social security benefits, medical benefits, life insurance, pensions and retirement plans, real property, and probate, as well the laws that relate to taxation.
Breadth and Depth
Externships and clinics offer ideal opportunities to gain the practical experience you will need to determine if family law is right for you.
McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.
Possible Field Placements:
Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the McGeorge Legal Clinics homepage for the current list of clinics.
The complexity of family law issues creates a high demand for attorneys who can navigate through an intimidating set of rules and procedures for their clients who are often in contentious, high-stress, and time-sensitive situations. In private practice, divorce cases often constitute the majority of the family law attorney’s work. For each divorce case, the lawyer must guide the client through the division of property, the setting of child and spousal support, and decisions on child custody and visitation. In many cases, this requires the lawyer to have an understanding of business law, tax law, real estate law, employee benefits law, and estate planning.
Estate planning attorneys must take steps to keep up with changes in tax law, which occur regularly and can dramatically affect the tax implications of their clients' actions. Given the technical nature of federal and state tax codes, an attention to detail is key to the success of every good tax law or estate planning attorney. It is also important for attorneys who handle tax matters to be able to explain complicated tax concepts in relatively simple terms so that their clients can understand what they need to do to minimize their tax burdens and why.
Skills often found in tax and estate planning lawyers:
Participating in any of the below-listed activities will not only offer you valuable insight into the legal system and the practice of family law, but will put you at a competitive advantage in your post-graduate job search.
Small firms and solo offices make up the majority of family law and estate planning practitioners. However, government agencies, large firms, and public interest organizations also play a role these areas of law. Federal and state departments of health and human services, prosecutors’ offices, and public guardian offices practice some types of family law, for example, usually dealing with issues of termination of parental rights, child support collection, and guardianship proceedings. Some large firms have family law and estate planning departments to help address their existing clients’ needs. Public interest organizations sometimes assist indigent clients with matters such as probate, immigration or even the drafting of simple wills.
Family law and estate planning attorneys represent individuals, not corporations or other organizations. Some attorneys represent mostly (or exclusively) clients with a lot of wealth and a large number of assets, while others focus their practice on people of more modest means or are appointed by the court to represent indigents. In cases involving the termination of parental rights, an attorney may be appointed by the court to serve as a guardian ad litem who will represent the child’s interests or the attorney may be hired to represent the parents against whom the allegations of abuse or neglect have been brought. Adoption attorneys usually represent adoptive parents but may also represent birth parents.