Jobs For The Girls: The Family Lawyer

And, readers, we’re back with another Jobs for the Girls.  This is one of my favourite series on the blog.  It gives us a chance to get behind what makes women choose the fascinating careers they choose, what drives them, what the job involves, and aims to either inspire you to try a different career path or, indeed, satisfy your curiosity about what exactly people in different careers DO all day.

When Yanthé emailed me offering to spill all about her career as a family lawyer, she said “Often when I tell people I’m a family lawyer they recoil in horror like I must be the devil, but sadly we are necessary (and not evil!) and I would quite like the chance to explain it.  People assume we must be cynical and you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve had people tell me they’re sure I never want to get married.  Actually I’m a big romantic, regularly mocked for my belief that the Beckham’s really are very much in love and do hope to be married one day!”

And immediately I wanted to know more.  It can’t be easy being in a job where people immediately form an opinion about who you are and what you stand for.  How did Yanthé get into being a lawyer?  Her path is not the path I expected:

“I never had any ambition to be a lawyer.  Never; the thought hadn’t ever even crossed my mind, but then my own family broke-down mid GCSE exams and we went through a pretty rough time.  My results were still really good but by the time I was half way through my A-levels it was clear that, both emotionally and financially, university wasn’t going to be an option for me then.  So I left school at 17 and needed to get a job, which turned out to be a trainee legal secretary in a local law firm.  I actually began that role officially undertaking an NVQ in business administration but after a couple of months the firm said they would support me through the training to become a Legal Executive.  Prior to joining the firm I hadn’t even heard of Legal Executives and many people outside of the legal profession still haven’t.  Along with Solicitors and Barristers we are a third branch of the legal profession.  My official title is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.  Practising Fellows specialise in a specific area of law and the work we do is very similar to that of a Solicitor in our chosen specialist field.” 

Fancy corporate shot of Yanthe

And what kind of training does it take to become a Legal Executive?  How does approaching the legal profession in this way differ from traditional degrees and law conversion courses?  Is there prejudice in what is still a “traditional” field?  “It took five years of full time work in a law firm and part time study alongside that to pass the necessary exams plus another two years after that of working as a lawyer before I was awarded Fellowship.  My qualification is degree level, I have conduct of my caseload and can appear in court before District Judges.  Legal Executives have the option of cross-qualifying as a Solicitor if they so wish, but the status of Fellows of CIlex has been progressed greatly in recent years; changes have allowed us to become Partners in law firms and just last year the first Legal Executive was appointed as a Judge.  The nature of the qualification means that by the time Fellowship is attained, Legal Executives have already been working on cases for a number of years.  I was conducting casework under supervision for some time before I qualified and thanks to the firm I trained with I already had a wealth of experience which has served me well in dealing with the cases I have worked on so far and I do not doubt I will continue to put it to good use in the future.”

Notwithstanding American legal dramas, what does a family lawyer do all day?  According to Yanthé, a typical day can include telephone calls or meetings with clients, corresponding and negotiating with other lawyers, drafting documents such as court applications or statements and liaising with the courts.  Yanthé says this “can be frustrating as the court system is very over-subscribed and under-staffed.  On more of a weekly basis I need to fit in file management, so making sure my files are compliant with procedures, keeping up to date with legal news and updates as well as networking with other professionals or new clients.” 

And how much of that time is spent in court?  With family law, I assume you try to avoid a drawn-out legal process?  “Despite the general perception of divorce lawyers, we don’t actually spend a great deal of time in court.  Throughout every case I take on, I consider with my client whether a mediation service could help to resolve the issues.  The majority of our cases settle without going to court, or after just one hearing.  The court process serves its purpose in focusing the parties’ minds on deadlines and on requiring certain evidential disclosures that may not be forthcoming voluntarily, but for most of our cases it is not necessary. 

However, there are always cases in which the parties are so polarised in their views that the only way to resolve the issues is for a judge to decide having heard all the evidence, but litigation is a risk.  Once a case is in the hands of the court the parties don’t always have full control over the outcome, although family courts encourage parties to settle at all possible points up to trial and even during in some circumstances.  So far this year only two of my cases have required a contested final hearing and they involved difficult issues or parties who were unwilling to negotiate.

Every family is different and every case I deal with involves different issues and sticking points.  It is very difficult to shock me, I’m sure I haven’t heard it all just yet, but wouldn’t be surprised if I was coming close!”

And Yanthé’s advice is overwhelmingly the following: “I cannot recommend highly enough that anyone involved in a family law dispute checks their legal position, but that does not mean they need to engage a lawyer to talk to their ex-partner for them!  Lawyers are expensive and should not be used as go-betweens unless there really is no other option. “

I can’t even begin to imagine some of the issues that Yanthé has to hear about on a daily basis.  How does she cope?  How does she avoid taking the issues home with her, and how does she learn to tackle the sensitivities and history that are so entwined in a family,and unpick them?:  “Family law covers many issues and which of those issues you come across more often can depend on the demographic you’re working in.  It would be disingenuous of me to say I never come across an issue which really upsets me, but handling sensitive cases becomes easier with experience.  Ultimately I strive to help the families I work with and hope that is what I achieve, but more often than not there is no ideal outcome.  Really in family law neither party should come away feeling as though they’ve won, because that would be the wrong result. 

I cannot deny there have been days when I’ve arrived home from work emotionally drained and dealing with fractious parties can definitely be straining but receiving a genuine thank you from a client at the end of a case makes all of that worthwhile.  I support my clients through one of the most challenging periods of their lives; they can be (understandably) very emotional and frustrated and sometimes those emotions are directed at me.  I’ve developed a pretty tough skin, it takes a lot to upset me but I’d much rather my clients vented their frustrations at me than at their ex-partner or even worse in front of their children. 

A stand out point from my career so far came not long before I made the move to my current firm around three and a half years ago.  I had been acting for a client who along with her children had experienced severe domestic violence and helped her, in conjunction with the wonderful Women’s Aid, in to a refuge and eventually in to a new home with the children and the protection of a court order which meant her abusive ex-husband could not reach them.  After I had broken the news to her that I was going to be moving away and that a very capable colleague would be taking over her case, she sent me a lovely card thanking me for everything I had done; she wrote that I could never know how much I had helped her and her family.  That wasn’t the first case of that type I had dealt with, but I was about to relocate to a city I did not know, away from my family and friends and could never have explained to her how much her words meant to me.  Her gratitude has always stayed with me.”

And following on from that, what’s the biggest sacrifice Yanthé has to make to do her job?  When abusive partners or children are involved, it must mean the 9-5 working day is a distant dream:  “There are definitely times when this job requires long hours.  If a client calls me at 5pm and needs an urgent application to be made at court first thing the next morning, for example to obtain the return of their child to their care or to prevent an abusive partner entering their home, then I will need to work until the documents are drafted and the application is ready to go.  E-mails arrive on my mobile throughout the weekend and often I need to respond before the office re-opens, perhaps a client experienced some difficulties at the handover of a child for contact and needs to know how best to tackle it.  The biggest reward is definitely knowing that a family you’ve worked with have come out of their case in a better position and with their children affected as little as possible.”

What does it take, to become a successful lawyer?  What does Yanthé have that makes her good and what she does, and what does she wish she did better?

“Different areas of law require different attributes for lawyers.  Commercial law, or Mergers and Acquisitions for example, can be highly contentious and require a very different skill set to family law.  Family lawyers should be conciliatory, the last option for our cases is a full-on fight; I can always tell when a lawyer I am dealing with on the other side of a case does not specialise in family law.  Dealing with clients who are emotional and going through one of the most traumatic times of their life requires a lot of patience, but a firm hand.  I need to be able to see all the different aspects of a case and look at each issue from all points of view, often including that of a child, so that my client can be prepared and know how best to approach the case.  I certainly wouldn’t say I have every skill a family lawyer needs finely tuned; no matter how patient you are aspects of some cases can be very trying(!), but I do draw on my own personal experience of family breakdown to consider how best to handle a case and I find that to be helpful.”

And finally, growing up, was it “be a lawyer, do or die”?  Or was there a Plan B?  “Growing up my only passion was dance, my poor Dad spent an uncountable number of hours waiting in village hall car parks for me to take classes or attend rehearsals.  I worked seriously towards heading off to professional dance college until my mid to late teens, when a foot injury (and curves!) meant I had to face that was never going to happen for me.  I don’t have any Plan B and that is a downside to not having a full degree.  Should I ever decide I’d like to move away from practising family law my options would certainly be more limited than if I had made it to university.  If I had gone to University I had planned to study Politics and Economics.”

Thank you so much Yanthé.  I genuinely found this one of the most fascinating JFTG’s we’ve had yet and I hope it gave you the chance to have your side heard.

Readers, do any of you want to get involved and be interviewed for this series, and tell our readers more about what you do and why you do it?  Email us and we’ll make it happen!

 

Categories: Jobs For The Girls
14 interesting thoughts on this

13 Comments

  1. Becca
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    This is really interesting. I qualified the semi traditional route (degree conversion practice course) and don’t really come into contact with legal execs so it’s a really interesting viewpoint. I specialise in litigation, specifically property litigation, and having worked for the Crown Prosecution Service in the summers between university swiftly crossed off family and criminal law as I found it too invasive emotionally.

    I think it’s really interesting how family law has changed, particularly in relation to the involvement of prenuptial agreements. Just out of interest, have you ever had to do one and how would you deal with it?

    • Yanthé
      Posted October 10, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Hi Becca, thanks for reading! It’s funny how different areas of the law attract different people isn’t it? I’d love to hear about a day in the life of a property litigator (hint, hint!). Actually one of the most interesting things about family law is how it changes, and it does so quite often.
      Pre-nups are actually one of the things I’m asked about most often. Contrary to what the press may have you believe they are not binding in England and Wales, but if executed properly they can be considered as a ‘circumstance of the case’ and can be upheld if the court feels it allows a satisfactory outcome for the parties (and most importantly any children they may have). For a pre-nup to be taken seriously both parties need to have separate legal representation and they need to be signed a good amount of time before the wedding. A napkin signed the night before “or else it’s off!” won’t cut it! As a firm we try to deal with pre-nups collaboratively, so everyone sits down together to figure it out. I’m going on a bit now, maybe this is a whole other post!

  2. Carly
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Yanthe, I had always wondered of it was THE Yanthe when I saw your name pop up, as its not a common name an it turns out it is!!

    Congratulations on your fantastic career, although I definitely think you should have written about working on the checkout at Tesco with me – far more fun! ;-)

    Carly C

    X

    • Yanthé
      Posted October 10, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Carly!! Hello! Fancy seeing you here! Everybody, Carly was the most awesome colleague at that well known Supermarket back in the day! I hope you’re well? xxx

      • Posted October 10, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        Love this place

        • Posted October 10, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Erm I mean AOW not Tesco although that’s an OK place too if you need Krispy Kreme donuts and let’s face it that’s most of the time.

  3. Posted October 10, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I find every Jobs For The Girls fascinating. We spend so much of our time at work and whilst I know not everyone can have a “career” and some just have what they consider a “job” in order to pay the bills, I love finding out whhat makes people do what they do and the curtain-twitching part of myself wants to find out what lawyers, phd candidates, photographers DO all day.

    What I love about Yanthé’s account is the thought of the stories she must hear daily. Marriages and families always seem so straightforward and she must hear such a complex, different reality every day – how one person’s account of something is never the whole truth, just their truth.

    • Yanthé
      Posted October 10, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Anna you’ve just hit the nail on the head. ‘One person’s account of something is never the whole truth, just their truth’ pretty much sums up my every day. Of course, each party wholly believes what their version to be correct, because they are recounting how they lived it, but more often than not the truth is a mixture of two accounts and what we have to do is balance them so that the problem is resolved to satisfaction for everyone as far as possible.
      I too LOVE Jobs For The Girls, hence volunteering for it. Reading about different careers fascinates me. More please everyone!

  4. Posted October 10, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Love this series. So far I’ve wanted to have all the jobs talked about.

  5. Katielase
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Love this series, it’s like a window into another life! Although it does make me perpetually envious of all the people who know and love what they want to do. I absolutely aspire to feel as passionate about a job as all these women, it’s very inspirational.

    CONFUSED POSTGRADUATE SIGH. Did someone say Krispy Kreme?!

    K xx

    • Posted October 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      I’m the same I had George when I was still in post-grad find a career limbo so now
      I’m in no mans land. Who knows what I’ll do when he starts school!!!!

  6. Frances
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Being nosey, I always love the posts in this series as it’s really interesting to find out what everyone does all day. Like Becca I will also be qualifying via the semi-traditional route of degree, conversion course, practice course so it’s fascinating to hear about different ways into law and the different areas of practice. I did some work experience with a family law barrister and it was such an eye-opener into how emotional even simple issues can get. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Posted October 12, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I’m late to this (as usual!) but just wanted to say what an interesting post this was. I’m afraid Yanthe, like you say, my preconception of lawyers was that they were all evil money grabbing scum. That was until last summer when I unfortunately had need for a divorce lawyer of my own. I was lucky to end up with a lovely lady who was incredibly supportive and made the whole process as unstressful as possible and it made a huge difference to me in my already fragile state. So thanks to you and all out there like you.

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  • By Jobs for the Girls – Building Surveyor on January 18, 2013 at 12:44 am

    [...] and wherefore’s of what she does for a living. When she first offered to feature alongside the Family Lawyer, the Personal Stylist and the Analytical Chemist (to name but a few!) Cheri had the following to [...]

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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