Building the Family Law Lawyer

Meeting the community’s needs

Building the Family Law Lawyer

Family law lawyers advise and represent clients facing one of the most stressful periods in their lives: a reconstruction of a family unit. Those clients, who sometimes are children, rely on their lawyers to guide them and provide clarity at a time when their emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual well-being is compromised. Those clients not only look to their lawyer for legal help but also seek resources to move through this experience.

To meet clients’ needs and expectations, a family law lawyer requires knowledge, skills, and a self-awareness that arguably differs from some of their colleagues. Indeed, many colleagues are grateful to the family Bar for taking up this work so they don’t have to. Implicit in this sentiment is a recognition that this is a valued area of practice, important to the community, and yet a challenge that many lawyers do not pursue.

According to the Law Society of BC’s 2020 Annual Report, 2,051 of the 13,059 practising lawyers report performing some family law work. That’s about 15% of the Bar, and a smaller percentage have specialized. A common reference about family restructuring is that 40% of all relationships end in separation and that about 38% of those relationships involve children under the age of 18. That reflects a significant segment of our community needing legal help.

We often hear about the “unmet legal need,” including for those needing family law advice and representation. Increasingly, there are discussions and initiatives about how to address this: the Law Society of BC Innovation Sandbox, advocacy to permit non-lawyer service providers, and speculation about establishing tribunals with guided pathways. Family law lawyers, who see clients after they have attempted resolution on their own, or have to untangle “agreements” made without legal advice about rights and responsibilities, or know the value of taking quick steps in court to preserve a client’s safety or secure property, know that the family law lawyer can be invaluable to clients. Timely, stable, and reasonable resolution, and a methodology for future review of parenting and child support agreements are the key results family lawyers achieve.

One of the challenges facing the family law Bar is the supply of law school graduates who are aware of the requirements for a family law practice and have developed a baseline of knowledge, skills, and self-awareness to begin serving clients. This baseline needs to include the theory, statutes, and jurisprudence in family law, along with business and tax law, personal and business finances, brain science, and the impact of adverse childhood experiences on decision-making. Education needs to include critical thinking skills, problem-solving principles, including collaborative practice, mediation and negotiation, courtroom procedure and advocacy, and client management. It also includes developing self-awareness to set boundaries when helping clients, and managing one’s own emotions, mental health, and reactions to difficult conversations and situations. This list isn’t exhaustive, but the topics are fundamental.

BC’s law schools don’t yet offer this package. And that’s a problem if we want to have enough lawyers to provide these services. Some say that the law school is not responsible for this type education; rather it should be achieved through the Professional Legal Training Course or articling. That doesn’t make practical sense for any hopeful lawyer. A student cannot be expected to pay upwards of $50,000 and incur debts in excess of $75,000 and not graduate with what they need to successfully practice law in area of great opportunity and need. The development that can be achieved during the three-year period of law school is far greater than what can be achieved in articles. Students need to know what a family law practice looks like and have the opportunity in law school to prepare for that.

The way we build lawyers, through law school education and the admissions process, will be the topic of study and debate over the next several months. Your engagement and voice matters.