Josh D. Simon
Family Lawyer Magazine Contributing Writer
To read Part 1, click here
4: Make every court appearance meaningful
This is going to qualify for the “I can’t believe it’s advice” category, but after more than a decade on the bench I can assure you it’s critically important to point this out to family lawyers: make every court appearance meaningful!
And by meaningful, I mean that something important should be happening at every court appearance. The matter should advance forward. Issues, to some extent, should be resolved or on the road to resolution. There should be a reason why this meeting is taking place in court and not in some boardroom, or even over the phone.
And while most family lawyers in my experience are settlement-oriented, child-focused and try hard to do a great job, there are still some – and far too many – who are unprepared to do their jobs, and unaware of the law itself.
Family lawyers shouldn’t view court as a forum where they can “talk to each other.” That’s not what court is for. And it’s also not what clients are paying for – many of whom are taking time off of work, and who are also paying for their family lawyer’s time. Clients deserve to have their matter advanced in court – not to have their family lawyer, or the opposing family lawyer, treat it as an opportunity to serve documents at the last minute, or ask for yet another adjournment. All of this needs to happen before court.
So the advice here, again, is for family lawyers to make each court appearance meaningful. If that means – and it usually does – that family lawyers communicate effectively and efficiently in between court dates, then that’s what needs to happen. Frankly, it should be happening anyway. But too often, it’s not.
Also, family lawyers should never lose sight of the fact – even some of them in my court still do – that judges have the right to make an order if one or both family lawyers are failing to fully appreciate the role and function of the court. Judges view every court appearance as an opportunity to close the case, and they are looking to family lawyers to demonstrate that they’re trying and have tried to make that happen.
And family lawyers should also remain mindful that their clients are taking time off work, dealing with the inevitable stress of sitting in court, and paying hundreds of dollars an hour. They need and are entitled to have their matter advanced with every court date.
5: Mentor new family lawyers
We have a serious, I’d even say severe succession planning problem in the family law bar. There are a large number of very senior family lawyers who are nearing retirement, and at the same time, we aren’t seeing many young lawyers enter family law for a variety of reasons – not the least of which being that it doesn’t pay as well as other areas of law, but also because one needs to have a certain personality type in order to withstand the emotional and psychological rigours of “dealing with good people at their worst.”
However, unless and until we do something to make family law more lucrative or less traumatic – neither of which seem to be on the horizon – then it’s up to family lawyers to help develop mentoring programs that really strive to help new family lawyers succeed.
For example, smaller family law firms may decide to share an articling student if the alternative is to hire no student at all. Firms may also want to connect with law schools to educate students on the myths of family law vs. the realities, so that those students can really take an honest, hard look at family law, and at themselves, to see if they’re the right fit. Because, yes, while it typically doesn’t pay well as other kinds of law, and it’s in many ways more stressful, those who are called to the profession are passionate, dedicated and couldn’t imagine doing anything else – because what they do is so important.
Few other professions, in the law or elsewhere, allow for such a profound opportunity to make a positive difference; one that will last far, far beyond the end of the legal matter. That’s the message that needs to be shared, and family lawyers who provide invaluable mentoring and articling opportunities will help ensure that when they retire, they leave their profession and its future in good hands.
6: Join your local bench and bar communities
Family lawyers should join their local bench and bar communities, associations and committees, so that they can take advantage of the ongoing dialogue between the court and the family law bar.
This interaction is an invaluable way to both get and give feedback, and to help judges like me understand how we can do things better. It also gives family lawyers the opportunity to really get involved in the systemic issues that the field must tackle – issues like making family law affordable so that more people avoid the mistake of self-representation, how to reform and improve family law so that its intentions align more harmoniously with its application, and other critically important issues that affect real people; especially children.
Indeed, I can relay a story of my own to help family lawyers grasp the benefits – many of them perhaps unexpected – of plugging into their communities and associations. At our last judge’s conference, we were told by a senior psychiatrist that the family justice system should actually be seen as part of the health care system, because our job is to use the law to, ultimately, heal people and families. This same paradigm can be certainly applied to family lawyers: their job is to make the family law process as pain free for their clients and their children.
Justice Brownstone has presided in criminal court, and since 2001 has presided exclusively in family court at the North Toronto Family Court. In addition to his role in the court and his work as an author, Justice Brownstone frequently comments on family law and divorce issues in the Canadian national media. He can also be seen on his public education talk show FAMILY MATTERS. Visit www.familymatterstv.com for more details.