What Is A Family Lawyer Do? Definition And Scope of Family Law

Family lawyers are legal advocates who handle cases involving divorce, child custody, domestic violence, and other intimate relationships issues. Their job is to provide legal counsel, represent clients in court, draft paperwork, research laws, negotiate settlements, and mediate disputes related to marriage, separation, and child welfare.

This article explores what family lawyers do on a daily basis. It covers the scope of family law, the critical role these attorneys play in guiding clients through emotional legal issues, key practice areas, skills needed, educational requirements, use of technology, collaboration with other professionals, career paths, and rewards and challenges. Whether you want to better understand what these specialized lawyers do or are interested in family law as a career, this guide offers an in-depth look into the meaningful work of family attorneys.

Introduction to Family Law

Family law is the area of law that deals with family relationships, including marriagedivorce, and child custody and support. Family lawyers help their clients navigate complex legal issues during some of the most difficult times in their lives.

A family lawyer’s role is to provide legal advice, representation, mediation, and advocacy to support their clients in matters involving:

  • Marriage, domestic partnerships, and divorce
  • Child custody, visitation, and child support
  • Alimony and spousal support
  • Adoption and surrogacy
  • Guardianships and conservatorships
  • Domestic violence and restraining orders
  • Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements
  • Division of assets and debts
  • Child abduction
  • Juvenile crimes and emancipation of minors

Family law covers both legal and emotional issues surrounding family relationships. It requires a specialized skillset to handle sensitive situations ethically and empathetically.

Introduction to Family Law

Definition and scope of family law

Family law is the body of law that governs family relationships, protecting individuals’ rights in matters involving marriage, divorce, and child custody and support. It is a broad area that encompasses:

  • Marriage – laws dealing with eligibility to marry, marriage license requirements, and the legal ramifications of marriage.
  • Divorce – laws regarding eligibility for divorce, asset division, alimony, child custody and support, and the legal dissolution of marriage.
  • Child custody and support – laws determining custody arrangements and visitation rights of parents and guardians, as well as child support obligations.
  • Domestic violence – laws aimed at prevention and protection for victims of domestic violence, including restraining orders.
  • Adoption and surrogacy – laws regulating the adoption process and surrogate parenting arrangements.

Family law varies by jurisdiction, as state and local laws apply in addition to federal regulations. The scope of family law also intersects with other legal areas like tax and estate planning.

Overview of the critical role of family lawyers

Family lawyers play a critical role in guiding individuals through divorce, separation, and child custody disputes. Their key responsibilities include:

  • Providing legal advice – explaining laws, rights, and obligations to clients regarding marriage, divorce, child support, and other family law matters.
  • Drafting legal documents – preparing and filing paperwork such as petitions for dissolution of marriage, parenting plans, prenuptial agreements, etc.
  • Representing clients in court – advocating for clients in family court proceedings including divorce hearings, child custody disputes, domestic violence cases, and more.
  • Negotiating settlements – handling negotiations and settlement agreements between parties in cases involving divorce asset division, child support, alimony, etc.
  • Mediating disputes – acting as an impartial third party to facilitate communication and compromise between couples in order to resolve disputes.
  • Collaborating with other professionals – working alongside psychologists, counselors, financial advisors, and social workers to address clients’ legal and emotional needs.
  • Providing support and guidance – helping clients make important personal and financial decisions during difficult transitions like divorce.

Key Areas of Practice

Family lawyers handle a wide range of legal matters involving intimate relationships and family dynamics. Key areas of practice include:

Marriage, divorce, and separation

  • Premarital and postnuptial agreements
  • Annulment proceedings
  • Legal separation and divorce proceedings
  • Spousal support/alimony determinations
  • Division of assets and debts
  • Co-habitation and domestic partnership issues

Child custody and support

  • Child custody litigation and agreements
  • Visitation rights determinations
  • Relocation and abduction issues
  • Termination of parental rights
  • Emancipation of minors
  • Child support and enforcement

Domestic violence

  • Restraining orders and protection orders
  • Safety planning and assistance
  • Divorce, custody, and visitation issues
  • Charges and penalties for domestic violence

Adoption and surrogacy

  • Adoption facilitation and procedures
  • Surrogacy contracts and disputes
  • Termination of parental rights
  • Guardianships

Legal procedures and documentation specific to family law

Family law involves specialized legal procedures and paperwork. Key documents that family lawyers handle include:

  • Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements – contracts made before or during marriage governing division of assets in case of divorce.
  • Cohabitation agreements – provide rights/protections for unmarried couples living together.
  • Petition for dissolution of marriage – initiates the divorce process by stating grounds for divorce.
  • Summons – document notifying spouse they are being sued for divorce.
  • Temporary orders – establish arrangements for child custody, support, and spousal support while divorce is pending.
  • Parenting plan – detailed custody schedule establishing each parent’s timeshare with children.
  • Child support order – sets amount of monthly child support to be paid, determines who pays it, and outlines enforcement.
  • Qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) – divides retirement accounts and pensions between divorcing spouses.
  • Separation agreement – settles divorce terms like property division, support, and custody.
  • Restraining orders – legally mandates no contact between abuser and victim.
  • Adoption paperwork – includes adoption petitions, consents, home study assessments, and court orders.

Work Environment

Family lawyers work in a variety of settings helping individuals resolve personal legal matters:

  • Solo or small law practices specializing in family law.
  • Large full-service law firms with family law practice groups.
  • Nonprofit legal aid organizations.
  • Government agencies.
  • Courts and clerk’s offices.

They take on diverse roles including:

  • Client meetings to provide legal counsel.
  • Representing clients in settlement negotiations.
  • Litigating and advocating for clients in court.
  • Drafting legal pleadings and paperwork.
  • Researching family laws and legal precedents.
  • Mediating disputes and facilitating compromise.

Professional Skills and Requirements

Certain skills and qualifications are critical for succeeding as a family lawyer:

  • In-depth knowledge of family law and divorce procedures.
  • Litigation skills to argue cases in court effectively.
  • Interpersonal skills to counsel clients through emotional issues.
  • Mediation ability to help resolve disputes amicably.
  • Writing skills to author legal documents.
  • Analytical skills to develop strong legal arguments.
  • Research capabilities to investigate case facts.
  • High ethical standards and integrity when handling sensitive issues.
  • Licensing as an attorney with a juris doctor (JD) degree.
  • Passing the bar exam to practice law.
  • Continuous education in family law through seminars and training.

Family lawyers should also be empathetic, compassionate, and stress resilient to support clients professionally during difficult times.

Educational and Professional Pathway

Here is the typical educational and career path for family lawyers:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree – A bachelor’s degree provides foundational skills for law school. Recommended majors include:

  • Political Science
  • History
  • English
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

2. Complete 3 years of law school to earn a Juris Doctor (JD) – A JD from an accredited law school is required to practice family law. Courses include:

  • Family law
  • Civil procedure
  • Contract law
  • Constitutional law
  • Property law

3. Pass the bar exam – After earning a JD, prospective family lawyers must pass the bar exam to be licensed to practice law.

4. Gain legal experience – Many new family law attorneys start their careers working for experienced lawyers or firms to gain hands-on practice before opening their own firms.

5. Pursue specialization through experience or advanced degrees – Family lawyers can build expertise through years of focused practice. Some pursue specialized advanced law degrees in family law.

6. Maintain continuing education – Family lawyers must regularly complete continuing legal education (CLEs) to stay up-to-date on evolving laws and best practices.

7. Establish a family law practice – Experienced family lawyers often open their own firms or practice groups dedicated to serving clients with family legal needs.

Use of Technology in Family Law

Technology is playing an increasing role in family law practice:

  • Case management software – Organizes client files, deadlines, documents, and billing efficiently.
  • Document automation – Generates customized legal forms and pleadings for clients.
  • eDiscovery tools – Helps gather electronic evidence from computers, phones, social media, texts, etc.
  • Digital communication – Secure portals facilitate communication and sharing files with clients.
  • Legal research databases – Provide access to up-to-date laws, rulings, and legal analysis.
  • Court records databases – Enable searching public records for background details on other parties.

However, technology also poses some risks:

  • Security threats – Family lawyers must ensure confidential client information is protected from breaches.
  • Authenticating evidence – They must confirm digital evidence is genuine and not altered.
  • Ethical pitfalls – Technology should not compromise attorney-client privilege or other ethical duties.

Collaboration and Interdisciplinary Work

Given the emotional and financial complexities of family legal disputes, family lawyers frequently collaborate with other professionals:

  • Mental health professionals – Psychologists, counselors, and social workers help address clients’ emotional needs and provide expertise for issues like custody evaluations.
  • Financial specialists – Accountants, appraisers, actuaries, and financial planners assist with asset valuation and division, as well as spousal and child support determination.
  • Mediators – Act as neutral third parties to facilitate conflict resolution and compromise between couples.
  • Child advocates – Guardian ad litems represent the best interests of children in custody disputes.

Interdisciplinary collaboration helps ensure family law cases are resolved holistically with consideration for both legal and human elements. Alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation also aim to settle family disputes amicably out of court when possible.

Career Development and Opportunities

There are diverse career development paths and opportunities in family law:

  • Entry-level – New attorneys often start as associates gaining experience in family law firms before practicing independently.
  • Solo practitioners – Seasoned family lawyers open their own firms specializing in marital and custody cases.
  • Law firm partners – After years as associates, family lawyers are promoted to partner with an ownership stake in firms.
  • Judges and magistrates – Experienced family law attorneys sometimes ascend to the bench.
  • Government agency counsel – Family lawyers provide counsel to government bodies that oversee child support policies and enforcement.
  • Nonprofit organizations – Family attorneys advocate for domestic violence victims or low-income clients through legal aid groups.
  • Law school faculty – Teaching aspiring family lawyers allows combining research, instruction, and mentoring.
  • Consulting – Family law experts offer their know-how consulting on major divorce cases.

Challenges and rewards of practicing family law

Practicing family law brings unique challenges as well as fulfilling rewards:


  • Emotionally draining disputes
  • High-conflict personalities
  • Heavy caseloads and tight deadlines
  • Financial aspects of divorce
  • Unpredictable court outcomes


  • Helping people through difficult transitions
  • Protecting children’s best interests
  • Stopping domestic abuse
  • Achieving fair resolutions
  • Building family law expertise


Family lawyers provide critical legal counsel, advocacy, and guidance for individuals facing some of life’s most difficult transitions. With their in-depth knowledge of family law, litigation skills, emotional intelligence, and mediation capabilities, family attorneys support clients through separation, divorce, and child custody disputes with professionalism and compassion. Although practicing family law poses challenges, the rewards of protecting vulnerable populations, mitigating conflict, and fostering understanding during family disputes makes this specialty incredibly meaningful. Overall, family lawyers fulfill an essential role in upholding the legal rights of individuals and families in our society.

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