Getting Referrals and Sustaining a Family Law Practice

Posted: March 3rd, 2014 by

Lisa Shapson, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

There is a sign at the coffee shop by my house that reads, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here. We’ll train you,” which always makes me laugh and think about practicing family law. When I told people that I wanted to practice family law at the start of my career 14 years ago, the majority of them responded with, “You have to be crazy to want to do that!” Although, once I had started, a friend—a family lawyer for 10 years at the time—said you will either love practicing this type of law and do it for the rest of your life, or you will be doing something else in five years. Well, 14 years, a marriage and two children later, I am still practicing family law. Why family law? Because I love it. I love the people and their stories, and I love helping them navigate through the tangled web that has been woven so they can move on to their next chapter.

Although this month’s column focuses on sustaining a family law practice and getting referrals, these networking tips apply to any area of practice. Getting started as a family lawyer is a bit more difficult than most legal careers because many of the third-year on-campus interview participants are large firms, very few of which will actually have a family law department, let alone an opening in that department. Occasionally, an alumni family lawyer will visit a law school for interviewing during the on-campus interviews, but that is extremely rare as the majority of family law firms are either very small or consist of solo practitioners.

Law students wanting to start a family law career have to look for family law positions in more creative ways. Some ideas are: Take family law classes taught by adjunct professors who actually practice in the area. Apply for summer internships with family law professors at local law schools or in the actual offices of the adjunct professors. Local inns of court or bar associations sometimes give scholarships in the form of membership to local law students, so students should check with career centers for these opportunities. Many local bar associations also offer discounted student memberships. Joining one or two local bar associations and attending section meetings is a great way to meet other family lawyers. What better way to find a job than to hang out with the people who are looking to hire you, if not today, then at some point in the future?

The family law world is a very tightly knit community and the majority of cases will almost always be against someone you know. Once employed in family law, networking to get client referrals is a necessity. Since many large firms do not have family law departments, being active in the legal community is a great way to get referrals from other lawyers. As for all of those bar associations and inns of court you joined right out of law school to meet other family lawyers— now you have to be in charge of them! All of these types of organizations have a group of officers that operate the organization, so run for a position in one of the groups. I am not suggesting that you need to become president of your association during your first year in practice, but starting with a smaller position is a great way for everyone in the organization to learn your name quickly. The more lawyers you know, the more likely they will refer a case. And, if a family law attorney is conflicted out, there is a good chance they will refer the case to you because they know you and see you regularly.

So, you graduated law school, you networked with your family law professors, you joined your local bar associations, you hold a position in one of them, and now the clients and referrals keep rolling in, right? Well, not necessarily. The irony of this type of practice is that because the family law legal community is so tightly knit and because you had to fight so hard to get “in” and become known, you don’t know anyone else very well but family lawyers. So, unless your colleague has a conflict with a particular case, they are going to keep that family law case for themselves. But if their opponent is unrepresented, the family law attorney may also suggest that person contact you.

Now, you have to meet other non-family lawyers so that you can get family-law case referrals from them since they do not handle such matters (and most wouldn’t want to handle them with a 10-foot pole). A great way to meet lawyers in other practices is to attend bar association meetings for a different section, or join a non-family law section that pertains to you, such as the women’s section of the bar association, or a bar association affiliated with a particular cultural group. Another route is to take a non-family law pro bono case and ask to be set up with a mentor. You will not only learn a new area of law, but your mentor will meet you and acquire a new source for family law referrals.

Mealtimes offer additional opportunities. Have lunch with a friend from law school and ask him or her to bring a colleague. Now you have two family law referrals, not just one. Or, while attending some of the non-family law bar association meetings, make friends with other lawyers who work close by. Consider starting a lunch group. Have your friends bring friends to the lunch group so that you double the network of non-lawyers who know you practice family law.

Also, as your kids, or nieces and nephews, get older, they become involved in school activities, township sports, etc. Get involved with the things your kids are involved in and you will meet other parents who are not necessarily lawyers, but other referral sources because they now know you and that you’re a family lawyer.

Although a career in family law may be hard to start and slightly harder to maintain without some creative effort, it is rewarding to meet so many different people and to be able to assist them through very difficult times. Or, maybe after reading this you are thinking that I am crazy for loving the practice of family law. As the Paul Simon song goes, “I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers” even though still crazy after all these years.


Reprinted with permission from the MARCH 3, 2014 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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