Education and Training Requirements
Useful high school classes for aspiring family lawyers include psychology, sociology, business, accounting, government, history, mathematics, social studies, and computer science. Since excellent communication skills are vital to success as a family lawyer, you should take as many English (especially writing) and speech classes as possible. Taking a foreign language such as Spanish will be useful if you plan to work with clients who do not speak English proficiently.
Most law school students have a bachelor’s degree, although law schools do not specify any particular courses for prelaw education. Students often earn a degree in prelaw or liberal arts fields such as English, history, economics, social sciences, and philosophy. Those planning to specialize in family law often earn degrees in psychology, business, social work, or counseling, or they minor or take concentrations in one of these areas. Taking business law classes (tax, employee benefits, accounting, corporations and partnerships, etc.) will be useful because you will often work with the division of people’s assets.
Most law schools require that applicants take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), on which prospective law students are tested on their critical thinking, writing, and reasoning abilities.
More than 200 law schools in the United States are approved by the American Bar Association; others, many of them night schools, are approved by state authorities only.
Law school training consists of required courses such as legal writing and research, contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, torts, and property. The second and third years may be devoted to specialized courses of interest to the student. Typical required family law classes include Family Law, Children in Law, Juvenile Offenders and the Law, Family Violence, Elder Law, Gender and Justice, and Assisted Reproduction and the Law. Elective courses may include Mediation, Negotiation for Lawyers, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Elder Law for Estate Planners, Disabilities and the Law, Immigration Law and Process, Education Law: Government and Legal Aspects of Education, Constitutional Rights in Family Law, and Law, Medicine, and Bioethics.
Students also complete a clinical component at a family advocacy organization, juvenile justice clinic, or legal aid clinic that specializes in domestic relations. They can satisfy the requirements for the clinical component by participating in a family law clerkship or an internship with a public defender’s office.
A degree of juris doctor (J.D.) or bachelor of laws (LL.B.) is usually granted upon graduation. Some law students considering specialization, research, or teaching may go on to complete further study.
Some lawyers choose to earn a master of laws (LL.M) degree, an advanced law certification that helps them advance professionally. LL.M programs, which typically last one year, are offered in many areas—such as child and family law, criminal law, dispute resolution, elder law, estate planning, and general law. A first law degree is required for admission to LL.M programs. Visit https://www.lsac.org/llm-other-law-program-applicants for more information. Visit https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/llm-degrees_post_j_d_non_j_d/programs_by_school for a list of LL.M. specialties and the law schools that offer them.
Other Education or Training
The American Bar Association, Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, National Association for Law Placement, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Association of Women Lawyers, and state and local bar associations offer a variety of continuing education opportunities. Contact these organizations for more information. Most law firms provide in-house continuing-education opportunities to their employees. Some even offer mentorship programs that pair new lawyers with experienced attorneys to help newcomers learn the ropes.
Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements
Certification or Licensing
The National Board of Trial Advocacy offers voluntary board certification in family law, Social Security disability advocacy, civil law, and criminal law. Contact the board for more information. The National Association of Counsel for Children offers the child welfare law specialist certification to attorneys who serve in the role of child’s attorney (including guardian ad litem, law guardian, and attorney ad litem), parent’s attorney, and agency/department/government attorney. The specialization area as approved by the American Bar Association is defined as “the practice of law representing children, parents or the government in all child protection proceedings including emergency, temporary custody, adjudication, disposition, foster care, permanency planning, termination, guardianship, and adoption. Child welfare law does not include representation in private child custody and adoption disputes where the state is not a party.” Contact these organizations for more information on certification requirements.
Every state requires that lawyers be admitted to the bar of that state before they can practice. They require that applicants graduate from an approved law school and that they pass a written examination in the state in which they intend to practice. In a few states, graduates of law schools within the state are excused from these written examinations. After lawyers have been admitted to the bar in one state, they can practice in another state without taking another written examination if the two states have reciprocity agreements; however, these lawyers will be required to meet certain state standards of legal experience and good character and to pay any applicable fees.
Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits
Experience as a family law intern, volunteer, or clerk is highly recommended.
Most family lawyers cite strong communication skills as the most important trait for success in this specialty. Family lawyers must be able to work well with people in very stressful situations, be able to listen empathetically to clients’ problems, and explain potential solutions and the legal process to clients. Family lawyers also must be able to effectively communicate orally and in writing to clients, opposing counsel, court personnel (judges, state’s attorneys, etc.), social workers, child and geriatric psychologists, and support staff such as paralegals and legal secretaries. Other important traits include patience; strong negotiation and counseling skills; the ability to remain objective about highly sensitive matters; excellent negotiation, time management, and organizational skills; strong trial skills; and the ability to think on one’s feet.