As an eager, young law student, I wanted to give openings like Jack McCoy and closings like Atticus Finch. I had idealistic dreams of dramatic court room maneuverings, styled eloquence, “gotcha” moments on cross-examination, and instant recollections of case law while defending against an objection. The last thing I wanted to practice was family law.
In fact, as graduation approached and the bar exam loomed drearily ahead, when friends asked about career plans, family law was on the very bottom of my list – right next to bankruptcy law. But I have gained a respect for family law in the past couple of years and there are some things about family law that law students and new attorneys alike should keep in mind.
Law v. Equity
Do you remember that stodgy law professor who spoke of the long ago split and merger between law and equity courts? Do you recall yawning during that soliloquy and thinking that such dribble didn’t much matter to you as a student, as all you really wanted to do was learn the current law, take the exam, and move on with the painful existence of being a law student? Well, kudos to that law professor because the distinction between law and equity courts does matter.
Family law in Maryland is firmly rooted in equity – the idea of fairness. While there certainly are areas of family law with shades of the traditional courts of law (e.g., Marital Settlement Agreements as contracts), the terms and provisions in marital settlement agreements, for example, find their place in the chancery or equity courts. (Note: Delaware keeps this vestige of the split between law and equity courts as its equity court is titled the Delaware Chancery Court).
Why Does This Matter to Me?
Family law bleeds into other areas of law – especially the concept of courts of equity. Another naïve trait of the law student is to study the law in discreet units (e.g., one semester of administrative law, two semesters of constitutional criminal procedure, one semester of maritime law because you thought it was going to be about boats). To add to your already disfigured brain, law schools are even structured in this manner. But when you work in the law, you quickly realize that those discreet units are really a multicolored rubberband ball that, when tossed, bounces all around the room.
Fear not. Understanding the concept of equity helps more fully form the legal mind because it completes the circle. Having been trained in law school predominantly from the perspective of law, and not equity, we are often bent on filing deadlines, the strict application of case law and statutory material, and attempting to apply the law to the facts in a precise manner. But when that pro bono child custody case hits your desk, you are stuck thinking, “Best interest of the child? What on earth can that mean, and how do I apply the law to that?”
And it is then that lessons learned in equity can determine whether you are able to successfully advocate for your client. Understanding the concept of equity in family law cases is critical in deciphering your strong arguments from your weak ones, which advance your client’s interests and are better left off your yellow note pad during motions practice or in argument.
The Bigger Picture
Finally, in a more general sense, understanding the concept of equity is helpful both in the broader legal context of becoming a more well-rounded practitioner and in fashioning your soft skills as an attorney. Quality family law attorneys, more so than many other areas of the law, place significant emphasis on soft skills. Hard skills are necessary, of course, in that every attorney needs to be able to properly draft documents, correctly find and state case and statutory law, and argue a case on the merits. But it is the soft skills that separate high caliber attorneys from mediocre advocates to lackluster lawyers. Child custody disputes, divorces, cases involving children and the Department of Social Services, and many other scenarios require a certain approach – sometimes delicate, sometimes firm – to best resolve a situation to your client’s liking. The power to mediate, in a general sense, and more formal mechanisms of alternative dispute resolution like Mediation, are powerful tools. It is not difficult to see how this skill, in the emotional landscape in which family law operates, can be translated to many other areas of the practice of law.
An education in family law is a prime vehicle for developing these skills, and there is certainly a current need in Maryland for skilled family law practitioners.
Derek Baumgardner is a licensed attorney currently working in a legal capacity for Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., in Columbia, Maryland.