Working in family law can run a paralegal through the full gamut of emotions… pride and joy as they draw up adoption papers and oversee the formation of a new family… pain and suffering through divorce and child custody battles… shock and outrage in domestic violence and child welfare cases.
An even emotional keel as well as a sharp mind and comprehensive knowledge of legal procedure are necessary for paralegals working in family law.
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Paralegal professionals who choose to specialize in family law understand the tradeoffs and enjoy the challenges. The field is as rewarding as it can be frustrating and it provides one of the highest ratios of client contact of any paralegal specialization.
Family law is seen as a solid career choice in the legal field. While areas like real estate and business fluctuate with the overall economy, life goes on… people fall in love, have children, and deal with challenges no matter what else is happening in the world around them.
With a roughly 50 percent chance of the average marriage ending in divorce, family law practices don’t have to worry about going out of business any time soon. Although Time reported in 2016 that the divorce rate was approaching a 40-year low, they also noted that the actual number of marriages were going up, providing steady work for the foreseeable future for family law specialists.
Communication and Negotiation: People Skills Are Paramount for Family Law Paralegals
With so many family law cases, it can be easy to forget that each one is a private emotional tragedy for the participants. They can become as upset and disappointed in the arbitrary course of justice as they are with their situation at home. Often, this anger ends up focused on the lawyers and paralegals who have to deliver the bad news.
But paralegals also serve as a valuable buffer in tense situations. When clients communicate through their lawyers, it removes some of the raw emotional aspects of dealing directly with an estranged family member. A paralegal can serve as a trusted medium to convey information and requests. Many divorces are now resolved through mediation rather than going to court, a faster and far less costly way to resolve issues since it is entirely about communication and negotiation. In fact, for most family law paralegals, talking to clients takes up most of the day.
People skills are perhaps the most important factor in the job. The ability to defuse a client when they end up losing the family home in a divorce, or to console them when they lose a custody battle, is easily as important as legal knowledge and organizational skills.
Wherever they work, family law paralegals spend a lot of time in face-to-face contact with clients, witnesses, and other involved parties such as guardians ad litem and social workers. Listening and taking accurate notes is important, whether conducting an informal investigation or working as part of team on a deposition.
Their word choice and body language can take on heightened meaning to clients in very emotional circumstances. Family law paralegals have to learn to keep their own reactions in check and to project smooth, confident competence when working with both clients and other parties involved in a case.
But tensions run high in domestic issues and paralegals do inevitably absorb some of the ire when working on family law cases.
From Child Support Collection to Child Advocacy
Family law paralegals are not always directly in the line of fire, however. Some work for government agencies responsible for dealing with domestic matters, primarily state court systems. These paralegals are responsible for matters that include:
- Calculating and arranging for the collection and distribution of court-ordered child support
- Working with litigants in family law cases who do not have attorneys (self-representing litigants) to brief them on family law processes and requirements
- Reviewing cases referred to child protective service agencies from social services and law enforcement to determine and recommend further actions
- Drafting protective orders and custody agreements for social service agencies
Paralegals also serve a valuable role as guardians ad litem in various child advocacy programs. A guardian ad litem serves as an impartial advocate for children or incapacitated individuals who are involved in court proceedings. They are appointed to serve in the best interests of the child when other parties may be more absorbed by their own interests. Although being a paralegal is not a requirement for guardian ad litem positions, it brings a valuable skill set and knowledge of the legal system to bear and makes them much more effective.
Some cities and counties run their own child advocacy service units, like Philadelphia’s Child Advocacy Unit in the Public Defender’s office, for example. Many legal aid organizations also have sections specializing in family law.
Adoption agencies and law firms specializing in adoption also rely heavily on paralegals. Each state has different laws concerning adoptions and it requires an expert to ensure that all the requirements are met when bringing a new child into a family. Paralegals that work in the process of facilitating adoptions cover tasks that include:
- Arranging immigration formalities for overseas adoptions
- Obtaining social security numbers for adoptees
- Ensuring that the adoptive parents meet visitation and other requirements
But even though adoptions are generally happy occasions, paralegals in these positions still run into difficulties… either birth or adoptive parents back out at the last minute, or the process falls through for legal reasons.
Legal Work Still Forms the Basis of the Job for Family Law Paralegals
Family law work is not all client interaction, however. Some real legal work has to be done, too. Paralegals fill the customary role as vital assistants to attorneys, performing traditional paralegal tasks like research and drafting motions for a case. And like paralegals in every specialty, organizing case files and tracking important scheduling matters are a large part of the job.
Paralegals can also draft documents during discovery motions to compel other parties in a case to produce information, or they might assist their own clients in complying with discovery requests during court proceedings. Compiling the voluminous amount of financial documents during a divorce is rarely easy.
Things that never seemed critical or worth preserving when times were good can become the linchpins that a case hinges on later… things like whose pre-marital bank account certain funds came from, or where a beloved family heirloom originated.
There are no special certifications for family law paralegals and family law is routinely covered in most paralegal programs. Experience generally comes on the job, or through workshops that deal with specific facets of family law practice like dispute resolution, mediation, collaborative divorce practices or child custody issues.
Becoming a Family Law Paralegal
Family law is covered routinely in most paralegal programs. Experience generally comes on the job, or through workshops that deal with specific facets of family law practice, such as:
- Dispute resolution
- Collaborative divorce practices
- Child custody issues
And like paralegals in every specialty, organizing case files and tracking important scheduling matters are a large part of the job, so basic office skills are important.
There are also three different certification bodies that offer advanced specialty certifications in areas related to family law. These certifications are available only to currently qualified paralegals and require additional study and course work, but the extra information they offer are valuable.
API, the Advanced Paralegal Institute, offers an advanced specialty certification in Elder Law sponsored by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. Elder law is its own specialty but many elements of family law overlap with it.
From NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants, advanced paralegal certifications (APCs) are available in four different focuses within family law:
- Adoption and Assisted Reproduction
- Dissolution Case Management
- Child Custody, Child Support, and Visitation
- Division of Property and Spousal Support
An APC is also available in estate planning, which also overlaps with family law to some extent.
Finally, NALS, the association for legal professionals, has specialty certifications for family law as well as estate planning, elder law, and juvenile law.