Family Law concerns all legal needs and problems that people have related to their family relationships. The private practice of family law typically takes place in small law firms or by solo practitioners. These lawyers handle matters such as divorce, property division, spousal support, custody and child support. They can also assist clients in becoming parents through adoption and the use of assisted reproduction. In addition, they counsel clients about legal remedies available to deal with domestic violence. Family law practitioners must be able to meet the needs of all types of family relationships, such as unmarried couples and children being raised by grandparents or others who are not their biological parents.
Many legal services offices handle the above issues for their low income clients. Child support and domestic violence are also addressed by specific agencies in every jurisdiction, and those offices hire lawyers to carry out their mandates.
The other way that families become involved in the legal system is through the state’s intervention into families when there are concerns that someone has neglected or abused a child. Attorneys working for a state agency petition the court, usually to remove a child from his or her parents. The court appoints lawyers to represent the parents and the child. These might be solo practitioners or small law firms, but they also might be lawyers hired by a nonprofit agency with a contract to supply legal representation in such matters. Subsequent legal proceedings can include hearings to determine whether the neglect or abuse occurred, where the child should be placed and under what conditions, and whether the parents regain custody of the child or, in the most drastic situations, have their parental rights terminated. This area of law is sometimes called Children and the Law, an area that can encompass other matters as well, such as representation of children in juvenile criminal matters or in administrative hearings to obtain special education placement.
There is overlap in the courses a law student might take to prepare for these two different venues of family law practice, but there are also some differences. For example, lawyers representing clients in divorce where a significant amount of assets and/or a family business are involved need to know aspects of tax, business, and trusts and estates law that would not be relevant to representing a parent whose child has been removed as a result of suspected child abuse. All family law practitioners must be skilled negotiators, but the private practice of family law also increasingly relies on alternative dispute resolution such as mediation, or a form of divorce negotiation designed to avoid litigation called collaborative law.