I have practiced law for 34 years in West Texas. During the first decade, I defended murder cases, drug cases and traffic tickets. Workers’ compensation was in its glory, as were lucrative plaintiffs personal-injury cases, and I had some of both in my general law practice. In 1987, I took my board certification exam in family law and began my career as a specialist in that field.
Today, my cases are primarily highly contested divorce and custody litigation. This area of the law, in my opinion, is probably the hardest on the emotions and the most stressful of any field. The following are my recommendations to lawyers who practice family law or who are considering this area.
1. Be knowledgeable. Family law is a complex area. The Texas Family Code has grown exponentially since I began practicing in 1978. As a young lawyer, my clients’ divorce decrees were two or three pages long. Now, they typically are 40 to 50 pages long, many times with appendices.
The days are long past when just anyone could knock out a divorce. There often are powers of attorney, deeds, deeds of trust to secure assumption, qualified domestic relations orders, letters under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, forms under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, and the list goes on.
2. Charge adequate retainers. The legal team is about to do a whole lot of work for a client who is emotionally volatile. Many times clients are scared, confused, angry or depressed. It is unwise to assume they will pay at the end. Sometimes, they reconcile with their almost-ex-spouses. The judge may decline to honor a jury verdict that calls for payment of attorney fees. Attorneys who are going to jump into highly contested litigation must be realistic with clients and themselves about the fees and the time involved.
3. Create balance. Since divorce and custody cases create significant burnout risks for lawyers, it is vital to find outlets to relieve the stresses on attorneys and staff. Writing, exercise, meditation and yoga are some smart, logical choices.
At my office, I have an in-house chef to keep us on a healthy diet for breakfast and lunch; a personal trainer who works with us Monday, Wednesday and Friday; and a chi machine that helps us with our energy levels in 10-15 minute timeouts. I suggest to my employees who smoke that they use the chi machine instead.
4. Practice law with integrity and respect. If children are involved, many divorcing clients will have to deal with their former spouses for the rest of their lives. Lawyers should refrain from adding to the acrimony if there is a better way to practice.
Having compassion for the clients and becoming a good listener can go a long way toward defusing their difficult emotions. If the lawyer is treating himself right by charging adequate and fair fees, he is less likely to resent listening to clients’ concerns and helping them work through the process.
5. Remember that family law cases change constantly. Unlike criminal or personal-injury cases, which center on a specific act that occurred at a certain point in time, family law cases involve disputes and solutions about people’s ongoing lives and the fluid motion of emotions, actions and events. The strategy an attorney develops today may be totally inappropriate tomorrow, so a successful family law attorney must be flexible.
6. Be prepared to work hard. There is no substitute for this. What a lawyer does while working through the process with clients may impact those clients for the rest of their lives. At issue in the case may be the client’s (or spouse’s) addictions, infidelity, emotional instability, greed, laziness, control issues and fears.
A lawyer must be prepared to do excellent work in the office and the courtroom and to provide good counsel, coaching, encouragement and a box of tissues. Frequently, I go to my bookshelves to give or loan a client a book or DVD when I think it might help them.
These clients are fellow human beings who have come to the family lawyer at one of the worst times of their lives. This is something to keep in mind when accepting a family law case. Some of my greatest rewards have come years after the matter concluded, when a former client tells me that something I said or did during the representation changed his or her life for the better.
That’s why I love family law. It is not a practice area that is suited to everyone. But given the right approach, the right attitude and the right work ethic, many lawyers can find it equally challenging and rewarding. I highly recommend it.