How to become a family lawyer in New York City?
April 30, 2011 6:46 PM   Subscribe

I want to work in family law in New York City and I don't really know where to start.

Last year I passed the NY bar (yay! and thanks also to some guidance from Askme on choosing a prep course), and now I'm pretty close to bar admission and it's time for me to start practicing my chosen profession.

I've spent the last couple of years working in a completely unrelated field (well, except for the part where I was also studying Jewish law, which is only practically unrelated). I actually finished law school in 2007. In Quebec.

Family law was and continues to be of great interest to me, but the content of what I know is mainly Quebec and Canadian, and I have basically no practical experience of practicing law - certainly not equivalent to what an American law student might have - since Quebec is super restrictive about what non-lawyers can do. I also don't personally know many lawyers, and neither me nor my friends seem to know any family law lawyers.

The good news is that I have my job until the end of August, and it's a fairly flexible schedule that leaves room for me to job hunt and even volunteer. Also I do have American citizenship so immigration isn't an issue.

(The other good news is that having gone to law school in Quebec, my debt is negligible. And I lucked out on my rent stabilized apartment in Brooklyn! So I don't need to be earning a lot. Even a little more than what I'm earning now would be fantastic).

If it helps: In my dream world, I would find a smallish practice that would take me on and teach me a lot and let me accumulate experience. In the long run - maybe someday have a practice of my own, or with a small firm, and also do some legal scholarship on the side. I think I'm more interested in private practice than working for a nonprofit, but I'm also prepared to start going and learning and see where life takes me.

Here are the couple of questions that I know how to ask, but I'm sure there are others I don't even know to ask. I would love to benefit from any and all of the wisdom of others that it is possible for you to share with me. I feel like I don't even know how or where to start.

1. Content: blogs/journals I should be reading? A good up to date primer on NY state family law (please!!)

2. Networking: where's a good place for someone who knows no one to start? Formal and informal associations for family law? for women? for Canadians?

3. Experience: How can I get some?

Thank you!
posted by Salamandrous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you looked for pro bono opportunities in your area?
posted by decathecting at 7:27 PM on April 30, 2011

Pro bono work is probably a good place to start for gaining experience, as well as meeting other attorneys who know the field and can put you on to other networking opportunities. In particular, there are a number of organizations that do a lot of pro bono work in the area of domestic violence, which touches on any number of family law issues including custody, child support, divorce, etc. Many of these programs, because there is always a need for more help, offer training/mentoring. A very cursory Google search (domestic violence pro bono New York) turned up this. (I don't know anything about the organization so am not recommending it per se, but it serves as an example of things that are out there--the first program listed on the page is called The Family Law Project.)

Also, take advantage of your bar dues. Contact the bar association and see what kind of CLE options they offer, or information about assorted societies related to specific practice areas.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 7:30 PM on April 30, 2011

There really is no better answer than do pro bono work at a local clinic that has a strong volunteer attorney program. Obviously, pick one that handles the sort of cases that interest you: guardianship? divorce? adoptions? estate planning? elder law? But make sure it has good training for volunteers and regular supervision for pro bono attorneys. You're not looking for something like the (very excellent) ABA Military Pro Bono Project which is just a pool of attorneys it assigns cases to and a database of resources to help them. You're looking for something like Cabrini Green Legal Aid, which runs an in-courthouse legal aid desk, where you read case records and draft self-help documents for clients, supervised by a staff attorney, and where registered volunteers go through regular training sessions.

Then make a visible commitment to the organization. You don't have to be there every day, but you have to be there at regular intervals. You have to make sure people know you, know your work, and recognize that you are willing to put in the hours to make something work. In addition to handling the work they give you, go to the volunteer happy hours, to the fundraiser (if you can find a way to afford it), talk to the other volunteers, recruit more volunteers and take the work very seriously.

Talk to every professional you meet volunteering, (clerks, paralegals, attorneys, social workers, whatever the Court-Appointed-Special-Advocate equivalent in your jurisdiction is), mention what your dream job situation is. Ask them how they like their firm. Listen to how they got where they wanted to be. By doing this, you are: demonstrating your interest in the field, your commitment to your career path and an engagement in the community. Eventually, one of the people you work with this way will recognize your name in a pool of applicants, or will tell a friend who's hiring about you, or will tell you about a colleague who's hiring, or will just be able to vet you.

also, American law students, save a few who work in legal aid in their summers or who go to a school with an excellent clinical program, know jack shit about practicing law when they graduate. I'm sure the summer associate tradition is changing radically as the whole law school golden calf idea implodes, but summer associates, in my experience, rarely learned anything practical about being a lawyer.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:00 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sign up to do pro bono work with InMotion. They'll train you, so you'll get mentorship, CLE credits, and real hands-on experience.

Also, check out whether the Family Court 18B panel is doing another training session any time soon - that could be very helpful, and they'd introduce you to do practicing attorneys who are willing to let you follow them around and observe.
posted by Eshkol at 3:15 PM on May 2, 2011

Read this book.
posted by bananafish at 10:44 PM on May 2, 2011

Thanks everybody for your advice. I'm looking through the listings and have contacted a few of them. It looks like all of InMotion's legal volunteer positions are full and they're not taking applications now, which is a shame because it sounded ideal. I will get the book recommended by bananafish and keep looking for opportunities.

If anyone has recommendations for specific reading about family law, that would be great. Or any other suggestions at all :)
posted by Salamandrous at 6:24 AM on May 3, 2011

Hi Salamandrous. I hope you'll get this post though I'm a few days behind. Here is a list of resources for you as you begin your career in family law in Brooklyn. It looks likes everything is lined up in your favor and you're in the right community. Here are some suggestions and links for you from me, a new public interest lawyer who left NYC because it wasn't where I was supposed to be...
Join Bar Associations:

My favorite of the above three is the NY County Lawyers Association. They are smart and down to earth and all ages and backgrounds. They have tons of Committees and networking events.

Inquire about work and pro bono opportunities with Legal Services NYC
(especially Brooklyn Legal Services which has a commitment to the Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg; your profile shows you as a sort of scholar of Judaism, if you speak Hebrew they may need you):

Volunteer for this:

See if your school has an account with this:

I wish you much luck!
posted by Ventre Mou at 5:20 PM on May 15, 2011

Sorry I forgot to add in the links.
posted by Ventre Mou at 5:21 PM on May 15, 2011

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