While in law school, I took a class titled “Sports Law.” On the first day of class, the professor asked which areas of law were important for a “Sports Law” practitioner to know. After the expected answers: contracts, negotiations, financial planning, personal injury, someone blurted out the correct answer “all areas of law.”
Family law is the same. Over the past year, besides understanding the IMDMA and the Parentage Act, I have also had to research issues related to bankruptcy, social security, ERISA, guardianship, adoption, tax/financial planning, probate, real estate, immigration, contracts, personal injury, partnership, corporate and criminal law and I could go on.
For example, in one case, during the pendency of a divorce, our client was faced with allegations resulting in questions concerning social security disability benefits, foreclosure issues on the marital home, and the possibility of criminal elder abuse due to the misuse of funds belonging to our client. Although this case may seem unusual, it is indicative of the practice of family law and the implication of other areas of law. Almost every divorce case will involve the transfer of real property, which would require an understanding of real estate law. Almost every divorce case will involve clients who want to change their wills, trusts and other documents necessitating an understanding of estate planning and probate law. Almost every divorce will involve the compilation of a balance sheet of marital and non-marital assets requiring the family law attorney to be knowledgeable in tax and financial planning issues. Thus, it is important that family law attorneys at least have a basic understanding of many different areas of law in order to effectively advocate for their clients.
Furthermore, because family law attorneys often deal with clients who are in an extremely emotional and life altering period of their life, these clients tend to turn to the family law attorney regarding many different types of issues legal and otherwise.
So what do you do when you are faced with an issue that you have not encountered before? “Winging it” is not an option.
The ISBA is a great resource to help Family Law Attorneys address issues and areas of law that may be new to them.
First, research the issues yourself. Read the relevant statutes, case law, treatises and the like to gain a basic understanding. A search of the ISBA Web site will direct you to articles in the ISBA section council newsletters and Illinois Bar Journal. FastCase is another great resource (which is free to members) through which you can research Illinois state statutes and case law.
It is also important to attend seminars. Upcoming seminars are listed in the ISBA E-Clips. Check your e-mail and regular mail frequently to learn more about the seminars offered by the ISBA.
Use the ISBA list serve to ask question of your fellow practitioners. There are forums in almost any area of law where you can get a variety of opinions from those who have experience. If you are not a part of the family law list serve, I urge you to sign up and be an active participant.
The ISBA also provides mentoring for young lawyers. There are lawyers who volunteer their time to assist those that ask for help.
With issues of particular complexity, it may be appropriate to hire an expert, whether medical, financial or otherwise. Finding a knowledgeable and experienced expert does not have to be guesswork. Network with other family law lawyers and ask them about their experiences with various experts. The list serve can also be a useful way to receive recommendations regarding certain experts. You can also call the ISBA directly and ask for a referral.
If an issue arises in an area of law that you are not familiar with, do not attempt to do it alone. Trial and error is not an acceptable learning method and you will do your clients a disservice if you fail to properly educate yourself regarding the relevant areas of law implicated in any particular case. Use the resources available to you through the ISBA and otherwise. You may learn something along the way. ■