Family law is a complex field of legal practice. It focuses on highly sensitive issues surrounding family relationships—from marriage and divorce to paternity and child custody. Although the nature of work can be challenging, it’s also an extremely rewarding area for legal professionals. As they can help clients successfully navigate difficult life changes. Whether you’re interested in becoming a family lawyer or know someone who is, we’re sharing everything you need to know about family lawyer education requirements.
What is a family lawyer?
With a wide portrayal of family lawyers in TV shows and movies, it’s safe to say most people understand the basics of what a family lawyer does. While not as glamorous or dramatic as what’s shown on the big screen, family lawyers do handle delicate work that impacts clients at the most vulnerable points in their lives. This legal work includes helping clients navigate: divorce, child custody, child support, and domestic violence. Family lawyers are the ones providing legal advice, representation, and advocacy to clients during these complex, emotionally charged life events.
With that said, we’d be remiss not to mention the more joyous moments and milestones family lawyers get to support their clients with. These include adoption, prenuptial agreements, and surrogacy. As you can see, family law can be a deeply-fulfilling practice area.
What is the best major for a family lawyer?
While there aren’t any formal undergraduate requirements for a career in family law, a number of majors will set you up for success. These include government, history, political science, psychology, and sociology—to name a few. Degrees like English and communication studies are also valuable. As these can help hone critical legal skills, such as writing and public speaking.
What does a family lawyer do?
Family lawyers help clients in legal matters that involve family relationships. This can range from marriage and divorce counsel to child custody and adoption. Like many fields of law, no two days are the same for family lawyers. They may be required to provide legal counsel and advice to clients to resolve a dispute, prepare prenuptial agreements or other documents, or represent clients in the courtroom for cases ranging from parenting arrangements to property settlements. Often, experts in this field are part of small firms or solo practitioners.
It’s worth emphasizing this can be a highly emotional area of law to be in. That’s because you’ll have to deal with very personal and sensitive matters. Moreover, as your clients will range from children to adults, it requires the ability to communicate effectively with people of all ages. As well as show compassion and empathy in helping them through challenging situations.
How many years does it take to become a family lawyer?
It takes at least seven years of education to become a family lawyer. This includes a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by three years at a law school to obtain a Juris Doctor, or JD, degree.
Family lawyer education requirements
Whether you’re planning to embark on a career in law or know someone who is, we’ve outlined the key family lawyer educational requirements needed to turn this dream into a reality.
Obtain an undergraduate degree
The first step to becoming a family lawyer is to acquire a four-year undergraduate degree from a university. While many law schools don’t focus on a student’s undergraduate degree, some good options are government, sociology, psychology, history, political science, or English. Ultimately, it’s best to choose an area that you’re passionate about and that you’ll enjoy studying. There is, however, one thing that really matters at this stage if you have your sights set on law school. That would be your GPA. Generally speaking, a GPA above 3.5 is needed to get into a good law school.
But that isn’t the only factor at play. The Law School Admission Test, commonly referred to as the LSAT, is another key component of the application process. As the only standardized test that’s accepted by all American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law schools in North America, it evaluates reading comprehension, analytical and logical reasoning, and writing skills. The LSAT consists of several sections of multiple choice questions that are scored on a scale of 120-180, along with a written essay completed separately to assess your persuasive writing skills. Tests should be taken at least six months before law school applications are due, and it can be done more than once.
Along with your LSAT score, you’ll need to gather letters of recommendation and develop a personal statement. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to send off your law school applications.
Apply to law schools
Choosing a school can be daunting—especially when there are nearly 200 ABA-approved law schools! The good news is that a number of resources and organizations exist that can help you find the right law school for your career path. One of them is the Law School Admission Council, which offers plenty of tools to evaluate schools. Ultimately, a range of considerations will impact your decision—including cost, location, school size, and employment outcomes.
Once you’ve navigated the application process, carefully made your choice, and enrolled in a university, you’ll spend the next three years completing your law degree. The first year will offer introductory courses that provide a general overview of the many areas of law. In your second and third years, you’ll be able to choose courses that are aligned to your field of interest—such as ones focused on children and the law, mediation, and estate planning.
After you’ve obtained your JD-degree from an ABA-approved law school, you’ll be required to apply for bar admission. This is done through a state board of bar examiners. Upon successfully passing the two-day examination you’ll receive a license that allows you to practice law.
Try to find a mentor in family law
As you gear up to enter the workforce, having a mentor who can introduce you to the field can make an enormous difference. Legal mentors can offer guidance, share their experience, and provide first-hand insight on the nuances of the field. In addition to answering any questions you have. This can equip aspiring family lawyers with the knowledge and guidance they need early on, setting them up for a lifetime of success. You can learn more about the value of legal mentors in our blog: A guide to legal mentors and how to find one.
If your network is small—and it often is for many legal students—you may be wondering where to find a mentor. Faculty members, law-related student clubs, and law school programs are all great starting points for connecting with potential mentors. It’s also helpful to attend events and conferences—such as those offered through the American Bar Association Family Law Section. You may also want to ask your network if they know of anyone who shares your passions and interests. They’ll likely be more than happy to meet with you for an informational interview. Volunteering or interning at a family law firm practice can also broaden your network. Not to mention provide invaluable work experience.
Consider an advanced degree
If you know right out of law school that you want to specialize in family law, getting a Masters of Law (LLM) or post-JD degree can be a wise decision. This will help set you apart from the competition by providing you with an understanding of the field. The American Bar Association lists schools that offer LLMs and post-JD degrees, including for family law.
Apply for family law jobs
When it comes down to it, the best learning you can get for family law is first-hand experience working in the field. Once you’ve completed your education, it’s time to begin applying your knowledge. In addition to roles at law firms that focus on family law, consider looking at nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
We’ve rounded up some of the top law firm interview questions, along with tips for writing cover letters that get noticed.
What skills do you need to become a family lawyer
Navigating clients through any kind of legal work is difficult and requires a myriad of skills. This only gets more demanding when you involve a potential life crisis, which is often the circumstances in family law cases. This means lawyers must be equipped with additional skills relevant to this specific legal climate. These skills include:
Family law legal knowledge: This should go without saying. While it’s never too late to change your practice area, significant time, training, and experience is required to become a successful family lawyer. Spending time gaining mentorship from a lawyer already working in this practice area, is a great way to learn the nuances and best practices of this area of law.
Communication skills: Effective communication including having empathy for your clients and practicing active listening. These are important for any area of law, but especially necessary in family law.
Interpersonal skills: Family law cases often involve highly emotional and sensitive situations. Therefore, family lawyers need to have strong interpersonal skills to communicate effectively with clients, understand their needs and concerns, and build trust and rapport on the fly.
Patience and resilience: Cases in this practice area can be long and drawn out. Clients will often face setbacks and disappointment. Family lawyers need to be an emotional rock and motivator to keep their clients’ spirits up so everyone can stay focused on the end goal. Because of the nature of these cases, family lawyers should take extra care to manage their stress, so they can be their best for their clients. These skills will help you build trust with your clients, be more persuasive in the courtroom, and negotiate powerfully on behalf of your clients.
Legal tech skills: The most successful law firms today use legal software to work more efficiently and securely. From billing clients, to automating documents, to client intake and communication, and when you have the skills and familiarity with modern legal tech, you’re more likely to start your new role successfully and help more clients.
Learn more about legal technology in our article, Software for Attorneys: How Lawyers Use Technology.
How much does a family lawyer make?
Being a family lawyer can be both professionally and financially rewarding. With that said, salaries for family lawyers will vary depending on many factors, such as; years of experience, location, and the kind of cases you take on.
Experts explain anywhere from $72,000 to $200,000 for family lawyer salaries, obviously the higher end reflecting many years of experience and perhaps even someone being a partner or running their own law firm. Your rates will obviously play a deciding factor in how much you’re able to bill for, ultimately generate for your firm or yourself.
Need help calculating your lawyer rates? Use our legal rates calculator to ensure you’re charging competitively in this changing market.
Compared to other practice areas: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for lawyers across all practice areas was $127,990 in 2021. All of this said, if your main motivation is money, this practice area likely isn’t the best one to pursue.
Final notes on family lawyer education requirements
Family law is a diverse and highly complex legal area. It involves guiding clients through matters surrounding relationships with family members. Along with completing the family lawyer education requirements, steps like finding a mentor and volunteering at firms can help. Not to mention, making a meaningful difference in people’s lives.
Not sure about family law? Check out our hub resources to explore the many different legal practice areas in more detail.