Family Law Basics for Young Lawyers

By:

Tiffany J. Jensen has practiced family law for seven years in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.  She enjoys the challenges and rewards of helping clients navigate through the various facets of a family law case.

Paige De Muniz is an associate at Gevurtz, Menashe, Larson & Howe, P.C., a firm in Portland with nineteen attorneys that exclusively practice family law.  Since joining Gevurtz Menashe in 2008, Paige has focused on family law, including divorce, custody and parenting time modifications, third party custody cases, domestic partnerships, child support and restraining order hearings.

1.      Make friends/allies with the court clerks

a.      “Friends in high places.”  “It’s not about what you know; it’s about who you know.”  These are clichés we are all familiar with.  These are also phrases new attorneys should take to heart.  As a new attorney, it is very important to make friends and allies with people who are in the best position to lend a hand when you are unsure of what to do or how to handle a particular situation.  The court clerks are available to assist you.  They are the people who can help you access the judiciary quickly and effectively.  They can provide valuable insight to the specific judges they work for as well.  Don’t be too caught in “being a lawyer” to miss the invaluable resource you have in the court staff.

2.      Set realistic expectations for clients in initial consult

a.      One of the most important things for new lawyers to remember when conducting the initial consult with a new client is to set realistic expectations.  The sooner you let your client know what to expect and what is to come, the better off the relationship will be throughout the course of the representation.  Do not make promises about results because there are always uncertainties that occur throughout the case you cannot control.  During the course of the case, you can continue to refer the client back to what you initially discussed with them in your first meeting, which can alleviate misunderstandings and hard feelings if the client’s emotions flare and their patience with the slow judicial process wanes.   Under-promise and over-perform.

3.      Specific language in final orders          

a.      Details are important.  As a new family law attorney, you may not be aware of all the potential pitfalls that can occur after the deal seems done.  Some of the most important work you do as a family law attorney is in drafting that final judgment.  Making the judgment as specific and clear as possible will help protect your client.  Remember, your client is separating from their spouse or significant other because they cannot get along.  The judgment you craft for your client will be a road map for them to refer to long after you’re done with your representation.

4.      Use experts.

a.      During the course of handling a family law case, every attorney will encounter areas where someone with expertise is vital to the effective and zealous representation of the client.  Real estate, business, retirement and tax issues routinely come up in family law cases.  When you are faced with portions of your case involving these areas, don’t hesitate to contact someone who is familiar with the ins and outs of such a topic.  Experts provide the court with much needed information, which will help them make a well-reasoned and just decision.  Experts can be used in child custody and parenting plan matters as well.  Experts who study the physiological, emotional and mental health and development of children at various ages can help your clients make educated decisions about parenting plans for their children based upon their ages and attachments.  Although we are trained to think we are capable of handling every situation that may arise during the course of our representation, never forget that experts are a resource to be used unabashedly and often. 

5.      Learn to leave it at the office.

a.      Family law cases can be a cocktail of emotion: drama, heartache, anger and frustration.  During the course of a case, your client will likely experience many, if not all, of the human emotions.  To maintain a level head and a reasonable and rational approach for their clients, it is imperative that a practitioner develop a way to leave the clients’ problems at the office.  Carrying such burdens around for 10, 20, or 30 clients is bound to have an impact.  The adage of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is most appropriate for family law practitioners in the context of what happens during the day at the office.  Keeping that mantra in mind as you navigate through the practice of family law will prolong your work in the field and provide you with the strength to provide exceptional service to your clients each and every day. 

6.      Prepare for Court.

a.      The best attorney is a prepared attorney.  A trial practice, which family law is, requires much preparation.  Approaching a “simple” family law case with an attitude that “winging it” will be sufficient is a recipe for disaster.  Your understanding of the facts allows you to present the case in an organized and efficient manner for a judge who is hearing the information for the first time.  Our courts today do not have the time or the patience for attorneys who are not prepared to present their cases in an efficient and organized way at trial.  Staying organized and ahead of the game from the beginning of the case will help with trial preparation.  The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be, and confidence is a key to success in practicing law.

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