A seat in family law

Don’t underestimate what you will learn from a seat in family. This department offers a high level of responsibility, plenty of client contact and the opportunity to develop a broad range of skills.

10 February 2017

By trainee solicitor Charlotte Holgate

I didn’t join Burges Salmon expecting to do a seat in the family department. However, this seat has a lot to offer in terms of experience, including a high level of responsibility, plenty of client contact and the opportunity to develop a broad range of skills.

During my seat in the family department a number of other trainees asked me: "Do the clients cry a lot?” which demonstrates the misconceptions surrounding family law. It is of course imperative that family lawyers deal with matters sensitively, especially as the work involves the client's home, personal assets and relationships, so there can be a lot at stake.

However, Burges Salmon’s family team specialise in complex financial disputes for high-net worth individuals and, more often than not, this involves various properties, companies, pensions, complicated trust structures and cross-jurisdictional assets, so the work is a lot more corporate than you might expect.

Client contact

As a trainee in the family team, you become very involved with the cases and have the opportunity to attend numerous client meetings. As the team is relatively small (compared with others in the firm), you work directly with the partners and learn from their experience first-hand.

You have the opportunity to build strong client relationships and as the clients got to know me I found that they called and emailed me directly. This is something you won’t necessarily experience in other departments and is great practice for qualification. I found that the clients appreciated that I was still learning so they didn't expect me to know everything straightaway, and they certainly didn’t mind if I wanted to check something with the matter partner!

Wherever you choose to qualify, you will need to develop lasting relationships with clients. Family law teaches you that how you say something can be just as important as what you say. Do not underestimate the importance of developing these interpersonal skills.

Broad range of skills

I have been consistently busy during my seat. The work is varied (encompassing contentious and non-contentious elements) and you will be involved with a range of work including divorce proceedings, financial settlements, child arrangements and non-contentious pre or post nuptial agreements. Trainees have the opportunity to:

  • develop their attention to detail through reviewing and analysing financial disclosure
  • improve their negotiation skills through settlement discussions with other solicitors
  • enhance their drafting skills by drafting documents such as pre or post-nuptial agreements, settlement offers and instructions to counsel.

You will also attend court hearings, conferences with counsel and need to liaise with external professionals such as accountants and valuers. In more complex cases, there is an element of 'project management' to co-ordinate the various financial advisors, lawyers from different departments and lawyers from other jurisdictions.

The work is fast-paced, particularly if it is contentious, but unlike corporate clients, individuals are not impressed if you call them at 6am or 10pm meaning the hours are generally more manageable. This also means you have windows of time to deal with matter management, which leads me to billing…

Understandably, costs are a concern for individual clients who are paying our fees out of their own pocket. This makes you especially aware of costs and the importance of accurate time recording, monitoring cost estimates and notifying the matter partner if you’re reaching the upper end of an estimate. You will also generate and review invoices and draft cost updates to clients; these are not usually trainee tasks and is invaluable matter management experience for wherever you want to qualify.

Networking

The family team sits within the firm’s private client department, one of the largest private client teams in the UK. As a trainee, you will have the opportunity to attend the wider departmental training sessions which allow you to broaden your knowledge and identify potential crossover legal issues that might arise in a family law context.

Family cases can involve input from tax, pension, corporate and property lawyers. As a trainee, being able to identify the issues and consult the appropriate department not only provides the client with seamless advice, but it helps you network internally and get to know others in the firm. This in turn leads to internal referrals, which is a key part of what we offer our clients.

Even if you don’t think it’s for you, don’t underestimate what you will learn from a seat in Family. It provides the unique opportunity to support and make a difference to individuals who are going through challenging periods – something that you are not likely to experience anywhere else.

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A seat in family law

Family law teaches you that how you say something can be just as important as what you say. Do not underestimate the importance of developing these interpersonal skills.
Charlotte Holgate, Trainee Solicitor

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