Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What New Family Law Attorneys Need To Know

At a conference on the Future of Family Law Education yesterday, a group of attorneys and mental health professionals were asked to advise the law professors present on what new lawyers need to know about family law.  Here is a summary of their responses:

  • The Honorable Doris Huspeni of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, who began her career as a family court referee,  advised, “Be realistic.  You need to be able to counsel your client as to reasonable expectations.”  She urged the importance of civility among members of the bar as necessary to effective advocacy.
  • Marty Swaden of the Swaden Law Offices echoed these sentiments.  He emphasized the importance of knowing the people involved in a family law dispute – the judge, the client and opposing counsel.  He was especially concerned that young attorneys sometimes believe that they have to have a tough, aggressive, and defensive attitude to be effective.  He emphasized the need for new attorneys to appreciate that there needs to be a good working relationship with opposing counsel so that the case can get resolved.
  • Nancy Zalusky Berg of the firm Walling, Berg, & Debele said, “Get yourself out of the way.”  She commented on the importance of family law attorneys understanding themselves and how their own experience of family can impact their representation of their clients.   Gary Debele of the same firm advised new lawyers to think of themselves as problem solvers first rather than advocates and litigators.  As a problem solver, he suggests three key questions: “What does the client want? Is what the client wants, reasonable and feasible? And How do you get to that result?”
  • Angie Banga, who serves as a Guardian ad Litem in family court, reminded the group of the importance of teaching the damage that high conflict divorces does to children.  She suggested, “Remember to be flexible – a good family court attorney is flexible; able to shift their thinking when they get new information.  They need to understand when they have drawn the short straw – everybody gets a client who’s case is weak."
  • Attorney Andrea Niemi of Niemi, Jerabek, & Kretchmer was concerned at the degree to which new attorneys are advising each other rather than finding a mentor.  She emphasized the need for new attorneys to learn how to find someone who knows what they are doing and how to access their expertise.
  • Karen Irvin, of the Minnesota Mediation and Counseling  Center, urged family law professors to teach family law student to think in terms of family systems: to think beyond the individuals they are representing to understanding the impacts on the entire family system. 
  • Mindy Mitnick, of the Uptown Mental Health Clinic, emphasized the importance of learning to work with mental health professionals.  “Lawyers are from Mars; mental health professionals are from Venus,” she quipped.

The conference was hosted by the Midwest Family Law Consortium, a collaboration of the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law, William Mitchell College of Law, and the University of Indiana - Indianapolis College of Law.  Additional sponsors included the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Minnesota Chapter; Hofstra University School of Law, Center for Children Families and the Lawthe Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, Minnesota Chapter.

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Sounds like a great conference! Sorry that I wasn't able to attend! I appreciate your sharing the excellent observations from the experts. During my 31 years practicing family law, my outlook has evolved to incorporate a more holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to resolving cases. Working as a "team" with therapists, financial advisors and accountants can do wonders. I believe that the objective shouldn't be on "winning" at all costs, but on establishing a clear understanding of the client's priorities and undertaking a plan to achieve them. And never use a child as a negotiating tool...

Posted by: Chip Mues | Jun 28, 2009 6:55:38 AM

Really great advice, thanks for sharing. I'm looking at family court attorneys in Bloomfield, NJ and this helps me know what I should be looking for.

Posted by: staceybeck01 | Apr 9, 2013 8:36:00 AM

I'm starting a family law business and am wondering about different family laws in New Jersey. Do you have any suggestions for resources that I could look into?

Posted by: bryan | Oct 10, 2013 7:42:37 AM

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