Indeed. Why would anyone choose to be a divorce lawyer? You see unhappy people at what is, for many of them, the worst moment of their life. Why would anyone sign up for that?
Several years ago, a candidate for elective office in Ventura County referred to his opponent as ‘just a divorce lawyer’, as if that disqualified him from running for office. The disparaging tone and insulting nature of the comment are, unfortunately, all too common, both among attorneys (who should know better) and the general public. His first mistake was one of nomenclature: we prefer to call ourselves ‘family law attorneys’ because that is a more accurate description of what we do. The rubric of ‘family law’ includes not just the process of dissolving a marriage (‘divorce’), but also property settlements, spousal support (‘alimony’), child support, custody and visitation (including grandparent visitation), adoption, guardianship, paternity, emancipation, juvenile dependency, determination of the validity of marital agreements, inheritance and probate – and this list is far from complete. Here’s what the court of appeal in a case where a disappointed spouse tried to use state securities fraud law to set aside an improvident marital settlement agreement said about family law attorneys: “Family lawyers do not get the respect they deserve. In terms of the potential breadth and complexity of issues which they face, family practitioners work in one of the most, and perhaps the most, exacting and demanding areas of concentration in the law. Under California’s community property laws, every item of marital property presents a host of challenging issues. Not only must the family practitioner worry about the characterization and valuation of each asset, he or she often must consider future tax consequences involved in various items of community property. On top of that, support and custody issues involve different considerations, in which a human relationship–as distinct from a discrete event–is the subject of the litigation. Manifestly, we do not need to make family practice even more perilous and expensive for divorcing couples and their lawyers by adding securities law to the already impressive range of legal considerations which must be taken into account in any dissolution.”
When I started practicing, Taylor McCord was a general civil practice boutique that litigated a wide variety of cases: personal injury, employment, contracts, real estate, criminal defense, toxic waste and contamination, government torts, wills and trusts, probate and even some bankruptcy. And family law, of course. I was fortunate be involved in all of these areas. Without exception, the most challenging, difficult, intellectually demanding – and rewarding – cases were in family law. Compared to what is involved in most dissolution actions, civil litigation is a piece of cake. To the corporations and wealthy individuals who hire the big law firms with their legions of attorneys, any individual lawyer is a fungible commodity; like Xerxes’ Immortals, if one leaves he or she is immediately replaced. To the single mom (or dad) trying desperately to get child support from a deadbeat parent, the right lawyer can be the difference between home and the homeless shelter. If you want to have a direct impact upon your client’s quality of life, with everything that entails – financial security, healthy relationships with children (and the ex), a fair division of assets, a stable future that allows the client to move forward and establish a new life and new relationships – well, you’re not going to do that by drafting 10-Q forms for Chrysler Corporation. You’ll do that by practicing family law.