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Career Focus: Family Law

Most seemingly well-defined practice areas turn out, upon closer inspection, to contain yet further subdivisions and specialisms. The work of family lawyers can be categorised in any number of different ways, but divides quite sharply along private law and public law lines. The former broadly covers disputes within families such as divorce and the associated arrangements for finances and children. Public law involves state intervention in the family, which can culminate in what critics call the “forced adoption” of children removed from their birth parents.

The result is that family practice is a much broader spectrum than most, with clients ranging from “high net worth” (aka filthy rich) divorcees to desperate parents facing care proceedings. Legal aid, for obvious reasons, is still available for the latter but the infamous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) removed financial assistance for most private family work.

One lawyer who straddles this divide is Anne-Marie Hutchinson, a partner at family outfit Dawson Cornwell. The firm’s central London offices are nothing if not reassuring to the well- heeled -- art catalogues are scattered around the reception room -- but Hutchinson is a former Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year, the result of her work for victims of forced marriage. The honorary QC is also an expert on child abduction, as well as other knotty problems of international law thrown up when children are taken across borders. It was for this work that Hutchinson was awarded her OBE (Order of the British Empire -- a somewhat ironic tag for someone born in rural Ireland).

But, Hutchinson tells Verdict, such specialisms are best developed later in one’s career.

“I get loads of letters from people who want to work with me straight out of their degree and they go straight in the bin,” Hutchinson jokes. “No, I do answer them, but I say come back to me when you’ve got some more experience and we’ll take a look.” A fervent desire to work with vulnerable clients is no substitute for practical legal experience, which can be perfectly well built up in a completely different field: Dawson Cornwell associate Sulema Jahangir, for example, trained at Freshfields before becoming a family lawyer.

Changing horses mid-race seems to be quite common. Ayesha Vardag, founder of the eponymous firm, had a conventional career as a City solicitor before her transformation into the “Queen of Divorce” (copyright: Daily Mail).

“I think it would be a mistake to specialise too early on. If you’re too narrow, you miss things,” Hutchinson explains. “If you’ve got an agenda, you overlook inconsistencies that you should have spotted, or fail to ask the right questions.”

Hutchinson herself began in “the rag trade” (civil litigation for clothing manufacturers) before moving into family. The transition was, admittedly, rather tinged with sexism: “When I was starting out, it was, ‘you’re a girl; you can help Jack with the family stuff’,” Hutchinson says of her early exposure to the field. The overt gender stereotyping may have faded, but men still tend to choose other areas: like many family firms, Dawson Cornwell has only a handful of male associates.

However you get there, it’s worth reiterating the obvious: the stakes in family are higher than any other area of law, with the possible exception of crime. “We’re dealing in personal outcomes. What’s the worst thing that can happen in a commercial or employment case - you lose some money? In a family case, you can lose your kids,” Hutchinson points out.

As a result, empathy and the ability to deal sensitively with emotional clients (without turning into a mere shoulder to cry on) are a must. In a field of practice that turns on human relationships, out-and-out technical specialists with no soft skills or life experience are unlikely to thrive.

“While I found financial law intellectually very interesting,” Vardag told the BBC in a 2017 interview, “very few people directly cared about what you were doing.” The visceral stakes explain the consistently high profile of family court proceedings, although in an age where specialist legal journalists are rare and court reporters a dying breed, you might not recognise your case by the time it’s been through the media mangle.

The tragic case of brain-damaged Charlie Gard, which pitted parents desperate for a cure against doctors certain that none existed, was picked up by the right-wing US press as an example of “socialised medicine” rationing care to sick babies (it was much more complicated than that, obviously, but that didn’t stop US Vice President Mike Pence from weighing in). The antics of the Fathers for Justice group, similarly, aim to highlight the perceived iniquities of the family justice system based on what many professionals consider a flawed understanding of how it all works.

Despite the huge public interest, family law is notoriously slow to change. Part 2 of the Family Law Act 1996, which would have introduced a form of “no-fault divorce”, was famously never implemented. That means that, in 2018, the Supreme Court was still (reluctantly) telling Mrs Tini Owens that she had to stay married to Mr Owens, as she hadn’t established that the marriage had irretrievably broken down. With Brexit taking up much of the government’s time and energy, reforming the divorce system, banning alleged domestic abusers from cross-examining their victims or allowing opposite-sex couples to get civil partner - ships are not high on the political agenda.

The good news from a commercial point of view is that family law is seen as fairly recession-proof. “When the banking crisis happened, family lawyers became busier,” Teresa Davidson of Irwin Mitchell told TargetJobs in a recent interview. “Clients find a way to pay their family lawyer.”

 

KEY FACTS

Pay

Vastly depends on what you’re doing. A blue chip firm with a lot of private family work will pay its lawyers accordingly: Farrer & Co, for example, pays newly qualified lawyers £64,000 a year. That’s more than even a very senior childcare lawyer working for a council children’s services department can expect -- although their motivations are very different.

 

High profile family lawyers

Philip Marshall QC, tweeting head of 1KBW chambers; Lucy Reed, blogging barrister; Fiona Shackleton, divorce lawyer to Prince Charles.

 

Key elements of the job

On the high street, it’s interviewing clients, negotiating and drafting settlements and court documents, and often courtroom advocacy or instructing a barrister. High-end divorce and trusts work will involve a lot of financial planning and research, with the help of accountants and other experts. Linking up with professionals is a key feature of public law cases as well: a lawyer working on child care cases can expect to work a lot with social workers, doctors and children’s guardians, sometimes on urgent applications.

 

How to get a foot in the door

Volunteering at a charity or advice organisation will give you an insight into the family law problems of vulnerable clients, while a good old-fashioned vacation scheme is probably the best insight into the high net worth arena. There are good specialist publications and organisations that give free detailed insights into the family law world, such as familylaw.co.uk, Family Law Week and the Pink Tape blog.