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Embarking in the Area of Family Law?

Insightful Thoughts for New Family Law Practitioners

The marriage and divorce statistics in Malaysia shows that on average, approximately 45 to 50 thousand divorces are recorded in Malaysia in the last couple of years.  Anyone keen to practice Family Law is encouraged to work with an experienced family law practitioner for a few years and during the same time, I would encourage the practitioner to work with non-governmental organisations which handle family issues such as women’s, father’s and children’s rights.  There are several in Malaysia which will provide the necessary initial exposure to intending family law practitioners.
Family law does not only deal with divorce proceedings, child custody, spousal maintenance and adoptions.  It also impacts other areas of law which include constitutional law, conveyancing, tax laws and even criminal law.  In recent times, adultery has been a rampant allegation in divorce petitions, giving rise to the development of DNA testing/paternity testing laws.
The usual tasks in family law involve drafting of affidavits, pleadings and inevitably terms of settlement, apart from the day-to-day routine of returning phone calls, drafting letters and negotiating issues which can arise at any second of the day.  Much time is spent interviewing clients to figure out a plan for their next move and the next course of action.  It is also not a case of communicating with only your client but also with experts collaborating with you on your case, such as a child expert, financial expert or even a private investigator.
If these issues have not intrigued young practitioners into choosing family law, other considerations such as the formula used in assets being divided, the figures plucked from nowhere to reflect damages to a co-respondent alleged with adultery, the facts surrounding the various possible grounds that point to irreconcilable differences, the concept of alienation that surrounds child custody and access issues may intrigue them.  These are live issues that continue to develop the area of case laws.
In university, family law is often a favourite optional subject.  It is interesting and involves real life facts.  It is all good to read law and be interested, but trust me it is a different ball game altogether when you have to ‘turun padang’ (get down to it) or roll up your sleeves and deal with real clients.
I had the privilege of working in the London Magistracy immediately after completing law school.  The work I did moulded me to be what I am today, a family law practitioner.  My initial exposure to areas of family law were namely domestic violence, custody, maintenance and care proceedings.  When I returned to Malaysia, I carried with me this valuable experience which eased me into this area of work.  Looking back now, I have no regrets for having chosen family law as my bread and butter and building my own comfort zone around it.
More often than not, young pupils who enter a firm that works in a specialised area of law would form an impression.  They would either like that particular area of law they started with or decide that it is certainly not their ‘cuppa tea’.  Personal preference, family influence and personal experience would all be factors that would drive you to this particular area of law.
During my initial years of doing Family Law, I used to give my handphone number to my clients and occasionally ended up talking to them way past midnight.  I realised the hard way that boundaries have to be drawn when you practice family law.  You may have to give your personal handphone number to your client as giving your number is unavoidable.
It was also at that point that I realised my role is not limited to just being a lawyer in a family law matter.  Your client wants a confidante, a friend, a listener, a psychologist, a protector, a mediator, an accountant and a problem solver all in ONE.  All of these roles actually require very little legal knowledge in family law and mainly dabbled in the facts of the case.  Beyond the specific knowledge that I have in family law, I learnt that I needed to have ‘people skills’.
I picked up very early on in my family law practice that everything your client tells you must be taken in as fact.  How useful a fact is going to be – only time will tell.  For this reason, I spend a lot of time talking to a new client.  Imagine – some may have 40 years of life to share with you, some just four months, some may have only made it to the Registry of Marriage without any further ceremonial wedding.  You are not dealing with a contract which tells you a story in several pages, you are dealing with emotions here.  Anger, mental and physical trauma, humiliation, fear, sadness, loss of monies, loss of children and family, loss of hope, the wasting of years of hard work, and loss of reputation, to name a few of the experiences enroute to a divorce.  Most of these clients are vulnerable and emotional.  The stakes here are different.  You may have to worry about a child’s welfare or a housewife’s survival for lack of finances.  The intensity in family law cases can never match that of other types of cases.
I personally find family law raising my adrenalin at every turn, teaching me many 
life lesson, building my own character, increasing my level of patience and desire to be rationale for my client.  As I often say, it is their privilege to be emotional but mine is only to be rational.  Perhaps, because of their vulnerability and the very intimate nature of the personal details that they share with you, they have a very high level of expectation.  If they call and you miss that call, it may not go down too well.  You will have to sympathize with them in a calm manner.
More often than not, a Judge will hint at the fact that they could have resolved a matrimonial dispute if not for the respective lawyers on record.  It is very easy to be caught up in those emotions and to behave as if only your client is absolutely right and that winning is all that matters.  At the end of the day, however, we lawyers will still have to meet each other in the next case with a different set of clients.  So, let us be mindful that we are merely carrying out our professional duties and that we should at all times extend our courtesy and candour in this respect.
One has to take a principled position in order to be recognised as a good family law practitioner.  For instance, if you are representing a woman, the position must be that access must be given to the man and that position cannot be compromised unless the circumstances involve physical or sexual abuse.  Likewise, if you are representing a man, he must be encouraged to start paying maintenance even before a Court Order is in place.  This is what taking a principled position means.  Inevitably we appear before the same Judges and these Judges remember us.  When you take a principled position throughout your family law practice, you will be respected.
Family Law practice is not just a nine to five obligation.  Those aspiring to go into Family Law practice must be prepared to work at least 50 to 60 hours a week.  You need to work very hard to manage your files amidst constant interruptions, and unexpected issues and challenges. Your time management is crucial.  You could be slapped with a 200-page affidavit containing 400 paragraphs.  We usually have 14 days to reply or respond to the same.  
Critical thinking, an analytical mind and strong writing ability is very much needed here.  Negotiation skills are also critical to a family law practitioner.  Strong communication skills can also help a family lawyer deal with emotional situations and handle negotiations professionally.
Lastly, to be successful as a family law practitioner, you must be blessed with an understanding family.  A family law practitioner does not have a typical day and it can only add chaos unless your own family life is stable and you can expect cooperation from everyone around you.  In the end, the reward comes once the matrimonial dispute is resolved for good and you are able to finally close the file.