Family law is one of the more challenging specialities, insofar as it involves counselling people through particularly difficult periods of their lives. As a family law practitioner, you’ll help your clients navigate divorces, property settlement, post-separation parenting arrangements, financial agreements (“pre-nups”), child support disputes and agreements. To a lesser extent, you may also deal with family matters involving State based issues including adoption applications and surrogacy agreements. While some lawyers specialise in one of these processes, many instead maintain a ‘general practice’, advising their clients on a range of issues.
The main piece of legislation covering family law in Australia is the federal Family Law Act 1975, which covers things such as spousal maintenance, property division, and divorce. Additional matters, such as de facto relationships, are dealt with in pieces of legislation specific to each state.
Personality is perhaps more importance for success in family law than in other legal specialities. This is because, as a family lawyer, you’ll frequently meet with clients who are emotionally distressed or dealing with very challenging circumstances (such as the breakdown of a relationship and family situations involving family violence and abuse ).
Whether or not this is an advantage or disadvantage depends largely on your disposition. For patient, compassionate and people-oriented graduates, this aspect of family law can be hugely rewarding - you’re in a position to make a real difference in your client’s life. Others may find the interpersonal aspects of family law to be draining or unpleasant.
One of the chief benefits of practicing family law is that it presents an exciting opportunity for continual education. To practice family law well, you’ll need to master various legal concepts and commit to the ongoing development of a range of skills, from advocacy to alternative dispute resolution.
Graduates who move into family law will quickly find themselves taking responsibility for various tasks, from attending clients meetings and taking notes to preparing briefs and supporting more experienced practitioners during their court appearances. You will also find yourself drafting many diffierent documents, including correspondence, court applications and settlement documents. As noted above, the beginning of your career in family law may involve you developing the ability to remain relatively neutral when faced with emotionally charged situations.
The flow of cases in family law is fairly independent of economic fluctuations. If anything, notes the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the 2008 recession is likely to have generated more work for family lawyers, having increased “uncertainty and fear about the future”, with the “economic and psychological impacts of [rising] unemployment placing relationships under strain”.
You may choose to build a career that focuses on a certain aspect of family law, such as the proper handling of divorce proceedings or the development of appropriate custody arrangements. Alternatively, you might choose to practice as a more generalized family law expert, advising clients on a range of issues, and, when necessary, litigating on their behalf. Either way, the continuing relevance of ‘the family’ as a core feature of our culture will ensure stability in this area of practice while you build on your skills and pursue a fulfilling career.