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Experience January/February 2023

Practice, Practice, Practice

Seth D Kramer


  • Senior family law attorneys are important in the legal community.
  • Unlike some other areas of law, age is not a barrier but rather an asset for family law practitioners.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Andrii Yalanskyi via Getty Images

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I practiced family law in Los Angeles County for 38 years. During that time, I’d often attend family law continuing legal education programs. At the end of some of those events, there would be a Q&A session. Whenever a questioner would say something like, “In my 35 years of practicing family law…” all the CLE attendees’ ears would perk up, anticipating an opportunity to hear a perspective gained from years of experience in the field.

Unlike other areas of modern American life, age discrimination isn’t an obstacle for family law attorneys. Rather than be scoffed at, dismissed, and deemed irrelevant, senior family law attorneys experience the opposite. Multiple decades spent practicing in the specialty is a valued asset within the community.

Why is this?

In part, it’s a result of the special culture of family law practice. According to retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider, who sat in the family law division for more than 25 years and is one of its former supervising judges, “Senior lawyers might have an edge in a smaller community like family law because we see each other more frequently, maybe work together on seminars, and maybe have built up a reservoir of trust.”

It’s the particular construct of family law courts that allows senior attorneys to build this reservoir of trust. For example, in Los Angeles County, all family law cases are filed in the superior court. Within that court, there’s a division that handles all family law filings, and it has a dedicated bench of judicial officers who hear only those matters.

As such, attorneys who handle a lot of family law cases may appear in front of the same judicial officer (on different matters) not only several times a year but possibly several times a month. “We learn who the judges are because we get to appear in front of them over and over, and they learn who we are,” says Marshall Waller, a shareholder at Feinberg & Waller in Calabasas who has been practicing since 1981.

Relationships Are Key

In California—as in many states—family law is a non-jury practice. As such, the judicial officer is the sole decider of both law and fact. It’s this audience of one that lawyers’ arguments have to persuade. And judges are a sophisticated audience.

Although a judicial officer may have had little or no family law experience before being elevated to the bench, my experience has been that judges are very conscientious and fast learners—and tend to remember attorneys who play fast and loose in court. As such, establishing credibility and honesty with the court is very important. The opportunity to develop a reputation—good or bad—is always present.

In addition, local bar associations will often put on family law CLE programs that have as presenters family law judicial officers alongside practitioners in the specialty.

For example, the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the superior court would jointly put on such programs, some of which would draw 300–400 people. Smaller bar associations would also host events featuring the bench and family law practitioners. Often, these would also have a social component, which would always be well attended.

As a result, the attorneys who participate in these CLE panels with family law judges demonstrate to the larger family law bar not only their understanding of the area of the law but their familiarity with the court. These programs also serve a networking function, where younger lawyers can see firsthand the stature of senior lawyers with the community.

A Club Everyone Wants to Join

This stature of senior lawyers has been a reality in the community and bar for a long time. “I remember feeling as a young lawyer how all the more seasoned attorneys seemed to have a relationship of some kind, like a club, with each other and the bench,” recalls Steve Weiss, an associate at The Reape-Rickett Law Firm in Calabasas who has been practicing since 1983.

It has always been a uniquely local practice. The “club” aspect that Weiss talks about contributes to a feeling of continuity that benefits senior family law attorneys who’ve practiced for years. As a practical matter, the overwhelming majority of family law cases settle. To effectively settle a family law case, you need to have a working relationship with opposing counsel. You must be respected as someone who knows family law and who can be trusted—not only with the court, but among fellow attorneys.

As Waller says, “I think the fact that we all know each other—like the more I know an opposing attorney—it just helps. It helps with everything. It helps with the professionalism. It helps with getting your client through the process. I like that, and I think that’s an outgrowth of dealing with the same judges every day.”

All these aspects of developing professional relationships take time—which again plays to the benefit of a long-practicing senior family law attorney.

This higher profile within the community—at CLEs and in court—also allows for informal mentoring to occur. “One of the things I see as a benefit is giving back by being a mentor to many young attorneys over the years,” says Weiss. “I know how much it meant to me in terms of my growth as an attorney to have a seasoned attorney take an interest in me.”

Among my colleagues in the family law bar, Weiss’s attitude isn’t unique. This type of informal mentoring strengthens the high regard for senior attorneys within the greater family law community.

Perfecting Soft Skills

Clients also benefit from senior lawyers’ years of experience. Family law matters can arise at unpredictable times, causing stress and turmoil in clients’ lives. As a result, clients will often act uncharacteristically emotional.

There’s an old adage that says criminal defense lawyers see bad people at their best and family law lawyers see good people at their worst. Because of this emotional component, not all attorneys handle family law cases.

The personal nature of the practice makes the experience of senior lawyers all the more essential. Says Mary Catherine Bohen, a solo practitioner in Los Angeles, “I think age and experience are essential to being a good family law attorney. The life experiences I had in my 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s have assisted me in having a better practical and emotional understanding of the problems our clients face.”

This knowledge can often lead to a philosophical, almost Zen-like perspective. “After practicing for more than 40 years,” says Robert C. Brandt, a partner at Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein in Los Angeles, “I’ve learned much about handling chaos, time constraints, difficult issues, and difficult persons. Often my experience helps minimize the stress because I know there will always be another day.”

Bar associations see the value in experience, too. Describing a “culture of respect for senior lawyers,” Brandt notes that local bar association sections often rely on senior lawyers for CLE and leadership. “Moreover,” he states, “the sections often recognize the experience and wisdom senior lawyers can provide to less-experienced lawyers.”

Practice: It’s How You Get to Carnegie Hall

All these factors help senior family law attorneys effectively represent individuals through a difficult time in their lives. This trait may also be true for other legal fields.

“In any aspect of the law, the longer you do it, the better you get at it,” says Waller. “It’s like that whole 10,000-hour thing. You put in your 10,000 hours, and you’re an expert. Second-year attorneys don’t have 10,000 hours. They’re still trying to figure it out. But the more you do it, the better you get.”

And that simple truth—that sweet spot—applies to senior lawyers everywhere.