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Summer Forum 2013: Modern Family (Law)

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By Aleta Sprague

Today we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights.

We’ve already taken a look at what attendees can hope to learn in the criminal lawcivil rights, and transactional pro bono breakout sessions. Last but not least, today we’ll offer a quick preview of the family law panel.

The field of family law is a growing and evolving rapidly. Since the 1970s, laws governing divorce, child support and child custody have changed significantly, in step with developing social norms. Often, family law attorneys are dealing with issues that are both time-sensitive and highly stressful for all parties involved.

Furthermore, the strong need for free or low-cost family law services often greatly outstrips supply, and many family law litigants have no choice but to enter the courtroom without a lawyer. ProBono.Net offers an interactive service that helps unrepresented parties fill out essential court forms; in 2010, family law was the service’s most popular topic, and accounted for two-thirds of documents that visitors completed. Meanwhile, many states’ family law courts have come under increased strain due to the recession and inadequate funding.

Clearly, working as a family lawyer, particularly in the public interest, is highly demanding–but it’s also incredibly important work, with a tradeoff of rewards and challenges like any other legal career.

To get a better sense of the day-to-day work of a family law attorney, I reached out to Evelyn Becker, who will be moderating the Family Law breakout session. Ms. Becker recently served as the first pro bono director of the Children’s Law Center, and previously worked on a range of pro bono matters as a partner at O’Melveny & Myers. She offers her advice below.

Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a career in family law?

Family lawyers are generally litigators, so trial-oriented courses such as evidence and trial advocacy are important. It’s also extremely helpful to spend some time at the Courthouse observing proceedings. An externship or clerkship with a Judge can provide valuable experience. Many law schools offer family law clinics–take advantage of these opportunities.

What type of skillset do you think new attorneys need to successfully pursue a family law career?

Family law lawyers need to be strong trial lawyers and negotiators. They need to have the patience, drive and flexibility for sometimes extended or unpredictable investigations. They need to work well with and relate to people with a wide variety of backgrounds and personalities.

What is your favorite thing about working in this practice area? What are the key challenges?

I love that you can make a real difference for people during a critical time in their lives and I enjoy meeting a variety of people. Family law is rarely boring. At the same time, the stakes are high and the emotions can be extremely intense. You will likely find yourself deeply moved by your clients’ stories and it can be a challenge to maintain a healthy objectivity.

What can Forum attendees hope to learn during your breakout session?

They will hear about the different types of family law practice from people who handle family law matters every day. The forum is helpful for people wanting to pursue a legal services career, or who want to have a pro bono practice involving family law.

Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.