Changes in family law landscape bode for an interesting practice


By Julie Chen Allen

Diverse evolving attitudes and behaviors from American society’s classes, ages, and racial backgrounds have created sharp declines in marriage rates for poorer, less educated Americans, and a rise in various new family forms, such as cohabitation and same-sex couples, according to a joint study by the Pew Research Center and TIME Magazine released in late last year.

“[Family law] is a fascinating area from a practitioner’s point of view,” confirms Steven J. Mandel of The Mandel Law Firm in Manhattan, New York.  “There is new case law every day. There are often major distinctions between state and federal law, and there are often so many fact patterns that it can be like a law school exam.”

Never having the same fact patterns and continuously changing laws means family law practitioners have to be creative in their problem solving and their client advocacy, says Mandel.  This is especially true with regards to same-sex family law matters.

“For example, state laws may on occasion totally conflict with each other and sometimes even federal laws,” explains Mandel. “In New York, the law will not allow same sex couples to marry, but will recognize a validly entered same-sex marriage from another state or country and grant the couple a divorce, if appropriate.”

Family law practitioners frequently have to work with both state laws and federal laws in order to advise their clients properly. For instance, many attorneys are still struggling with how to best advocate for the interests of their clients when there are uncertain irreconcilable differences between state laws and the federal Defense of Marriage Act that was passed in 1996.

The slightest differences may significantly impact divorces, adoptions, termination of parental rights, inheritances, division of personal property and almost every other aspect of a family structure. 

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need,” says Mandel (giving a nod to Mick Jagger).  “A good family law lawyer helps the client to understand the difference and to fight the good fight for those things that really matter.”

“The saying that the practice of law is an art, not a science, is especially true in the area of family law,” says Mandel. 

Clients need an attorney who can think outside of the box to protect their rights and interests. Thus, law students who enjoy creativity might find family law to be an area of practice to consider.

“You have to be totally dedicated, and you have to be willing to work hard,” says Mandel. “Or you’ll be crushed by someone like me.”

All kidding aside, there is unfortunately nothing funny about family law, he says.

The practice of family law will require knowledge in every other area of law, say Mandel. Any area of life that could impact a person’s life will be relevant to this area of practice.

“Family law is not something you take lightly,” Mandel cautions. “If a lawyer only knows the law, the Legislature could repeal everything they know. You have to know people, and make a serious commitment of your time, effort, and emotions. People’s lives are not something you simply dabble with.”