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It’s a yearly ritual. Every August, the new law clerks arrive at the steps of the Fairfax County, Va., Circuit Court. And every October, the new clerks meet with the Fairfax Bar Association’s Family Law Section. This meeting, where clerks and attorneys alike get to discuss developments in family law, as well as air grievances, is unique to the family law attorneys. That’s because each fall there’s a brief period of chaos with pleadings in family law matters — which account for about a third of all the civil cases filed in Fairfax Circuit Court, according to Judge Robert Wooldridge Jr., who heads up the law clerk program this year. New clerks, who typically have little or no family law experience, painstakingly review divorce pleadings and child custody cases to make sure court documents contain all of the information required by a web of federal and state laws. The results are not always pretty. When the clerks are not sure if a pleading complies with the law or court rules, they are told to reject or “bounce” the document. Clerks are looking for whether a pleading complies with all of the court’s technical requirements. These range from the technical (whether a party attaches the appropriate copies of divorce depositions to pleadings) to the substantive (whether a document properly lists where and when a person was married). But because the law clerks are still learning, documents are sometimes erroneously rejected. That can leave members of the bar frustrated, especially when they have to explain to a client why a pleading was bounced, says Fairfax attorney Beth Bittel. Richard Byrd, of Fairfax’s Byrd Mische, who is chair of the county bar’s family law section, says that this year his firm has already had two pleadings bounced. One was rejected because a witness at a divorce deposition wasn’t present at the couple’s wedding two decades earlier — a requirement not mandated by Virginia law. The other, a complaint for divorce, was returned to Byrd because it didn’t list the party as a “bona fide” resident of Fairfax County. Every other document submitted to the court in that case, including the deposition transcript, listed the party as a “bona fide” resident. Although it has happened in the past, Bittel says that she has not had any pleadings rejected this fall. And even when her documents are bounced, she — and others — remain understanding. “They have a tough job,” she says. “I’m sure they get used and abused a lot.” Because part of this tough job includes making sure that domestic relations parties have jumped through every statutory hoop, it keeps the 15 law clerks quite busy, says Byrd. To help the clerks, who are often fresh out of law school, the court has created a checklist of factors to look for. Checklists are used in other civil matters, such as adoptions, but “it may be more important in the domestic relations field than anywhere else,” says Wooldridge. “We don’t want to enter a divorce decree, have someone remarry, and then a few years later find out the divorce wasn’t valid. We do tell the law clerks to err on the side of caution.” As Byrd can attest, sometimes that caution can extend too far. But regardless of the problems that arise each fall, the new law clerks are welcomed with open arms. “We moan and groan about this stuff,” says Byrd. “But they’re new and they’re trying to do their best for the judges. And this frees up the judge for doing judge work.” Adds Wooldridge: “We find our law clerks fairly indispensible. The court would not run nearly as smoothly without them.”

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