How to become a family law attorney: advice for a middle schooler
February 23, 2021 6:48 AM   Subscribe

How do people become family law attorneys? I have a young person in my life who wants to become a family law attorney so she can help families in difficult times. She wants advice on how to do this. She is from a poor and underserved area in South Carolina - low high school graduation rates, limited access to college counselors and college prep. I don't know jack about law school except that the student loans can kill you.

What does the educational and professional trajectory look like for someone becoming a family law attorney? She wants to research undergraduate colleges - what are some good ones for pre-law (especially affordable and in South Carolina)? What do pre-law students major in? How do you get a law degree and not drown in debt? Metafilter attorneys: what would *you* tell a middle schooler who was thinking about this career path? What can you do as a middle schooler and high schooler to increase your chances of success?

Bonus: this child is black and starting to consciously grapple with racism. Tell me about organizations that might give her hope or support - at any stage in her education/career.
posted by congen to Education (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
While I can't comment on the specific geographic resources that may be available, I will note that my advice for students is to get an undergraduate degree in something they are good at and interested in. This will (hopefully) make getting good grades easier, which is the most important part of an undergraduate transcript when applying to law school - much more so than what the degree is in. I went to law school with people who ended up being family lawyers who had undergraduate degrees in classics, pharmacy, biology, philosophy, history, etc.
posted by hepta at 6:53 AM on February 23 [12 favorites]


family law generally isn't one of the "prestige" areas that requires fancy schools and great grades. Any accredited law school located in the area where she would like to work is fine - check their bar passage rates, though, because you don't want a place that can't teach you to pass it.

Many family law practitioners are solos or practicing in a small partnership (useful for babysitting cases, but really not necessary.) It's nice to go to school in the place you want to practice so you can start networking locally right away and ideally find internships/summer jobs that can segue into local employment when you pass the bar.

It doesn't matter what her undergrad major is. Find something she can get good grades in.

Also, with family law there tend to be law school clinics where law students can get great experience working pro bono -- things like domestic violence and divorce are practice areas where there is always demand for low cost help. It's a giant plus to have graduated with experience like that. If her law school hasn't got one, there will probably be a legal aid society in the nearest big city that will. (But she should ideally choose a school that does have one.)

For what she wants to do, I'd strongly advise going with whatever geographically appropriate law school option is cheapest. Family law can be lucrative once the practice is up and running - and it's recession-proof, unlike many other areas of practice - but there are no guarantees that she'll like it, and debt is a shackle.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:22 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


In researching undergrad programs as a South Carolina resident, she should know that SC particpates in the Academic Common Market, and that opens the door for her to pay in-state tuition for schools all over the South.
posted by minervous at 7:25 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


There are organizations working with young people to increase the number of attorneys from underrepresented communities. One I’m familiar with is Just The Beginning. Info on JTB’s programs for middle-school students is here: https://jtb.org/connected-for-middle-school/
And yes, family law is not a prestige area, so finding the cheapest, accredited path to practice is a solid approach, but for a strong candidate that doesn’t necessarily mean the school with the lowest tuition. Who knows what things will look like when this student actually gets to law school, but at this point many law schools offer merit scholarships.
Finally, law schools obviously require an undergraduate degree, but that degree can be in just about anything. Often folks interested in law school do government majors, but for someone looking to do family law, I’d think good majors could include psychology, sociology, or social work.
posted by ElizaMain at 7:43 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


I have a number of friends who practice "family law," and for the most part this means things such as divorce and child custody matters with a smattering of adoption, prenuptial agreements and the like. These are vital services and, as fingersandtoes points out, it's fairly recession-proof albeit emotionally difficult. If she's more interested in pursing activism-focused work and work to benefit underserved communities and disadvantaged families, it may make sense to research those things specifically and try to find a school that has relevant clinics and could connect her to those circles.

Considering that she's a middle-schooler, however, much of this is a good bit in the future. The best things she can do for the rest of her secondary education is to diligently apply herself to get the best possible grades in the highest level courses she can take at the best schools she can attend, and to pursue attractive extracurriculars in things such as debate team and (perhaps law-adjacent) community volunteerism, and to leverage these things to get as much merit-based scholarship support as she possibly can to an undergraduate school good enough to give her a lot of choices when looking at law schools (where she hopefully also can obtain scholarship support).
posted by slkinsey at 7:46 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


Best answer: She should go to college somewhere she'll be happy and law school in the area where she wants to practice. Lawyers can major in whatever they want. Grades matter more than major. I majored in economics with a Theology minor, lots major in history or political science, and I had classmates who majored in French, kinesiology, education, physics, and all sorts of other random things. For family law, I think a background in psychology might help. For running a small practice, a business degree could be useful.

I went to a less prestigious law school because I had a full scholarship that only required me to stay in good academic standing. Law school scholarships are absolutely out there and private schools tend to have more of them.
posted by notjustthefish at 7:54 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Best answer: I recently retired from a small (2,000 students) state university campus in South Carolina and, in my opinion, that's the kind of place she should aim for. In my decade+ time there I knew students from poor rural families who ended up going to law school. They worked hard in all of their classes, they sought out help when they needed it, and they developed good relationships with faculty members. It's much easier to do that last one at a small campus.

A well-rounded liberal arts education is probably the best preparation, and math and science should be included. The two students I remember best majored in History and English. A student interested in family law might want to major or minor in Sociology.

College and law school require a whole lot of reading and writing. If your young friend is not a big reader now find ways to encourage her. Tell her to stop watching tv if she does that and bury herself instead in books. I used to tell students to read whatever appealed to them. I would give them analogies like building their reading muscles the same way they might train for a marathon. A lot of them arrived with very little reading experience and were all of a sudden asked to read whole books, and long journal articles; many of them were easily overwhelmed by all that.

Are there any women lawyers in your/her area who might be interested in mentoring her?

Feel free to memail me, I have lots of ideas about all this, especially after working with a lot of South Carolina kids like her.
posted by mareli at 7:55 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]


She should talk to some actual, practicing family law attorneys-- ideally, young ones-- as soon as possible, then keep connecting with them periodically over the next few years. This should be pretty easy to do: most everybody will be pleased to have the opportunity to talk about their career with an adorable middle-schooler, and Zoom makes it very low-stakes to ask for 20 minutes of somebody's time over lunch. I bet she'd have luck just by cold-calling offices, saying she's trying to learn about how the job works, and asking whether anybody might be willing to talk briefly about it over coffee sometime.

Informational interviews like that are important partly because professional careers are like mazes: what seems to an outsider like the most obvious path towards B is seldom the correct way to get there. You can learn a lot more by starting with someone who's reached the goal, then working backwards to see how they successfully did it.

However, contact with people in the field is also super-important in this case because it gives an idealistic young person a way of learning what the imagined job is actually like on a day-to-day basis, including the hidden tradeoffs that may be involved for people who pursue that line of work. Not that she should actively try to disillusion herself, but she'll make better decisions at every stage of this costly career path if she has a realistic sense of the life she's working toward.
posted by Bardolph at 7:56 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]


Best answer: Pre-law isn't really a major as an undergraduate. You major in a subject and then apply to law school. Literally any major is OK, and indeed law school admissions committees tend to prefer "non-traditional" majors. (Traditional being things like history, political science, etc.) My uncle was a juvenile court judge for a long time; he majored in agriculture. Generally, if you know what kind of law you want to specialize in (which most law students don't - this is actually pretty uncommon), you can major in something related. E.g., business if you're interested in corporate law, criminology if you want to be a defense attorney or prosecutor, etc. (Although beware; if you major in something about which you have strong opinions, law school can be a splash of cold water, because your opinions no longer matter.)

For family law, what I would suggest is social work. It'll give a solid background in the kinds of things she sounds like she's interested in. Most importantly, it's a built-in Plan B. As you know, law school admissions are selective, and not everyone gets in. A lot of undergraduate social work programs have a +1 option for an MSW, though, so if she doesn't get in to law school, she can still be on track for a professional degree working with families in crisis. I have a friend who did this. And if she does get in to law schools, joint JD-MSW programs are becoming more common as well. So my advice is to look at schools with colleges of social work. In general, these tend to be bigger schools.

In terms of law school admission, one thing that I think helped my case is that I worked at a law firm over summers during college. It was just running errands - filing paperwork at the courts, hand-delivering documents to other firms, stuff like that. But I get the impression that most would-be law students don't really understand what being a lawyer is like. They expect dramatic John Grisham courtroom showdowns, when it's really just typing a lot of memos. Anecdotally, I think law school admissions committees prefer applicants who show some understanding of the more boring parts of the job. So if she can find a family lawyer she can work for, that would be a big bonus. For me, my job came with a lot of networking and the promise of a job offer after graduation as well, but mileage may vary there. Volunteering at family-crisis organizations might also be helpful, if not least because it will expose her to how heartbreaking this particular field can be. That's something a lot of people can't handle emotionally. If she's one of those people, it's better to find this out when she's still in high school than when she's taking out loans.

Speaking of loans.... I can't really help you there. I dropped out after a year and I'm still feeling the effects. There are scholarships, but in general, the idea behind law school is that you'll be able to afford the loans with your future earnings. In general, though, family law isn't particularly high-paying.

One thing I'll point out for a black person in South Carolina is that SC has an HBCU, South Carolina State. I don't know anything about SCSU in particular, but everything I've ever heard about HBCUs is that they're pretty special and unique, the kind of place that's hard to find anywhere else. Assuming that it makes academic and financial sense for her, it's something to consider.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:58 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


I favorited Bardolph's answer because I think the #1 best thing she can be doing right now is finding out what the practice of family law is actually like. Will she enjoy having every single weekend interrupted by somebody having a conflict over visitation? Will she like spending half the day talking with emotionally overwrought clients and the other half banging out briefs? Will she be heartsick over not being able to fully protect children from a shitty parent? Because becoming a family lawyer is actually pretty easy. It doesn't matter what you major in as long as you get good grades. And ideally you major in something that will give you a plan B, because the lawyers who wish they had one are legion.
posted by HotToddy at 8:32 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]


My standard advice about law school is:
1) Find out what the practice of law is actually like, ideally by spending time with an actual attorney -- in this case a family law attorney.
2) Identify where you want to practice, geographically.
3) Go to the accredited school which will give you a full scholarship and enable you to practice in that region, rather than a top-14 school which has national recognition but will saddle you with debt.

You can't eat your school's national recognition; you can't pay rent with it; and you're still going to owe those loans no matter how good the school is. In my experience the alumni connections are not especially compelling: I have never gotten a job through the alumni network of my law school.

Obviously if you get a full, three-year ride to, say, Harvard Law, you should take it, but if the choice is between paying for Harvard Law for the next 25 years vs. graduating from Northwest Greenacre College of Law for free with an ABA-accredited JD and no loans, knowing that you want to spend your life in Northwest Greenacre anyway, take the free JD.

Note that this implies the prior existence of grades, test scores, and a personal history which is likely to compel Northwest Greenacre College of Law to offer you a full ride, which, you don't know until you know. But if I were planning to do it over again, that's how I'd do it.
posted by gauche at 8:56 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


My friend is a family law attorney, works representing children in divorce disputes, and got a dual law/social work degree. The way to get a free ride into law school (full tuition) is to have a high undergraduate GPA and a high LSAT score. Law schools like this because it is good for their rankings. The lower-tier law schools will pay full tuition to get someone with good stats. Middle tier will give a good amount of grants. High tier schools take their pick of the high GPA/high LSAT crowd, so many people won't even get in. Students whose stats show them to be "splitters" (high GPA/low LSAT or vice versa) have a shot at getting funding in the middle and high tier if they have some unique traits (Olympian, member of under-represented population, etc.). That might indeed apply to your student for growing up disadvantaged, so when the time comes, she should definitely apply to schools at all levels.
posted by xo at 9:11 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


mostly just some general "how to get degrees for free or cheap" advice:

No one in the family has to be a Burger King employee for this young woman to be able to apply for the Burger King scholarships, but maybe that'd be a good summer job for her when she's old enough?

I've only ever gone to public universities, and most of them had a certain number of free credits per semester for staff. I know an attorney who was staff at a university when he was a law student. He got a fellowship for his 1L, and then worked through 2L & 3L at the rate of his free credits (not all law schools will do this, but it's something to explore).

I worked alongside attorneys for several years in a govt job, and I landed that govt job via doing an AmeriCorps VISTA program, which is another option.

Hopefully the high cost of advanced degrees won't be as much of a problem in the future, but there's also Public Servant Loan Forgiveness, which is what a lot of public sector attorneys count on to pay off their law school debt.
posted by leemleem at 9:13 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


In the near term, one thing I would encourage her to do is to figure out how to do well in her math classes. While lawyers don't need advanced math to do their jobs, the skills that it takes to well in middle school and early high school math are ones that will serve her well later on - attention to detail, accuracy, logical thinking. So often math is taught in a one-size-fits-all manner that leaves students feeling stupid when they really just weren't being taught in the right way. Since math is so cumulative, getting a solid confident foundation in middle school will really pay off - both in terms of skill development and also getting those good grades.
posted by metahawk at 9:23 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Good undergraduate colleges to research include the following. Schools that give good merit aid to students, of which the most notable and local to SC is the University of Alabama. Schools that say they 'meet the full need' of everyone they accept - including Davidson College, Emory University, Duke University, and Wake Forest University. Schools that specialise in making college accessible to people from low income backgrounds, Berea College and College of the Ozarks. Almost of these colleges need very high grades to get in, but if you do get in they may well be a lot cheaper than the next most affordable option and would offer an excellent preparation for law school.

The next most affordable option is likely to be a public college in SC. It's worth looking at any of them that offer a liberal arts education (for example if they offer a history major). They don't all require tippy-top grades to get in, but plenty of people go to law school successfully from public colleges.
posted by plonkee at 10:53 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I, too, want to emphasize the correctness of Bardolph's answer, especially for someone with so many years yet to go. You can get into law school having done well in just about any field of study, so the most "professionally specific" important thing is for her to get an idea of what the work is really like and whether she thinks she might actually enjoy doing it. In addition to finding a practicing attorney in the field, I would suggest reaching out to the Univ. of South Carolina's Black Law Student Association to see if any students would be willing to talk to her about their experiences specifically as young Black people in the law. The odds are good--I think especially if you have the young lady write the email herself.

Then she just needs to focus on doing well in school (and growing up into the young person she wants to be, which is outside the scope of this answer, but the most important thing, of course!). Having attended a very poor city public school, I can say that, often with the best intentions in the world, they nonetheless often fail to prepare even their most talented students either academically or experientially for more rigorous college work in the broader world, making the transition to college, especially a college that is geographically or socially remote, unnecessarily challenging. Is she geographically eligible for any of these programs?
posted by praemunire at 11:00 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


(The exact sort of college and law school she should aim for honestly depend heavily on her formally-measured academic accomplishments over the next few years. I would be very hesitant to suggest either more inexpensive local schools or the Ivy League--but especially the former--as her aspiration until it's a little clearer how competitive a candidate she'll be. Most kids in her situation suffer more from not having the support to dream big enough than from being too ambitious.)
posted by praemunire at 11:03 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


College and law school require a whole lot of reading and writing.

I wanted to emphasize this from mareli's post above. Encourage her to think of every essay assignment in middle school and high school and undergrad as an opportunity to hone those written skills.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:02 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


I think the most important thing for a middle schooler from a disadvantaged background is for her to start building multiple stories about how her life could be successful that are based on real people that she has some common ground with - she needs role models, and mentors, and sponsors.

She needs to understand how to keep herself in the running. She needs to not get distracted. There will be a teacher who will snatch her confidence, there will be an uncle who will deflate her dreams, there will be laughs from the white kids when she mis-prounounces a word that she has read, and understands, but has never heard spoken aloud. These are the kids whose parents are doctors and lawyers and business people - and they have money and social networks and heads-up from insiders about every single aspect of competing - and they are doing it on behalf of their children and your young friend will need to make her way in this world regardless of the profession. Let me emphasize: she isn't competing with white kids. She's competing with their parents and their resources.

So I would say - get her connected with people she can turn to - who will cheerlead and model success and model real life pathways - that it is a valid path to go to school until you are 26, which can sound crazy to somebody in a poor or lower middle class family. That there are ways to the life she wants - and get her to get used to envisioning this - what are her values, what does she want to accomplish in the world, what does she care about.

Most kids in her situation suffer more from not having the support to dream big enough than from being too ambitious

100% agree. I fear connecting her directly to a family law attorney is going to be missing a lot of middle steps about being a professional adult in this world, learning how to own and define her own ambition, and figuring out how to ruthlessly get there when she's starting from 1st instead of 3rd base.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 12:08 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]


In general (and specifically from my BIL, who is a securities attorney):
If you are planning on a career that will earn you a lot of money, you go to the best school you can get into, no matter the cost, because you'll earn it back and pay off loans easily.
If you are planning on a career that will not earn you a lot of money, you weigh the cost of attending a lot more, because those loans will hang over your head a lot longer. (He said this to a friend who wanted to become a family law attorney. The friend became a teacher.)
YMMV.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 12:19 PM on February 23


I can’t overstate the cost/loan issue. Plenty of students start out meaning to do something good and get sucked into corporate because they have to pay off debts. Think about running a business: you need to manage staff, to rent an office- there are a million practical details. And meet an actual attorney, and see what they actually do all day. Family law is emotionally very hard. There are kids involved. DV and abuse are common issues - things that cannot be proven in the criminal arena or by child dependency proceedings due to high burdens of evidence but may in fact be happening. Otherwise I agree with everything above - your college major does not matter, go to school where you want to practice.
posted by kerf at 12:20 PM on February 23


I think the cost/loan issue is an obvious and important practical concern, but (from my own experience, from a family that often struggled financially) I also think it is very easy to inadvertently discourage an inexperienced child from pursuing a career path (or any dream, really) if you overemphasize the expense involved. The fact is, it's just way too early to tell. If this girl excels according to formal measures in high school, she may be able to attend a very good undergraduate school at surprisingly low cost; if she excels there, especially as what they (used to?) call an underrepresented minority, she may be able to go to a great law school at similarly low expense. On the other hand, if her work is more average, she may need to take a different path where expense is a much more pressing issue. The point is, you don't want to discourage or frighten her or make her feel like she'd be asking too much of her family to chase her dream in middle school.

I fear connecting her directly to a family law attorney is going to be missing a lot of middle steps about being a professional adult in this world

I do feel like there's no real harm in letting a young person talk to people in the career they're interested in, as long as it's not pushed as their only choice. It's not sufficient, you're absolutely right about that, but it's helpful. Especially in the law, where the perception of the day-to-day work differs dramatically from the reality.
posted by praemunire at 1:29 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Hi folks! Thanks for all your helpful answers. I communicate with this person by snail mail, so I focused on near term advice in the letter, but also drew her a timeline with middle school, high school, college, lsat, applications, law school, job steps and your advice about each stage.
posted by congen at 8:18 AM on March 7


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