Western Mail, 22nd March 2007
The press is full of headline-grabbing stories about high-profile celebrity divorces and the lawyers behind them. But there’s much more to becoming a family lawyer than chasing a financial settlement.
At the top end of the scale are the Abramovichs and the McCartneys and their multi-million pounds divorce settlements.
At the other end are the thousands of ordinary British couples who suffer the pain of divorce outside the glare of the headlines.
And while many people are able to settle their separation amicably and without too much grief, many are unable to.
The one common factor – if couples are wealthy or not – is almost always the divorce lawyer.
Divorce and associated family law is attracting increasing interest among those keen to enter the legal world, with high-profile cases serving only to boost the profession’s popularity.
Melanie Hamer, Partner at Wales’s largest family law firm, Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, Windsor Place, Cardiff, believes the sector is one of the most intellectually challenging but also emotionally rewarding that the law has to offer.
“Unfortunately, lots of young people recognise this and it means that training contracts are now very hard to get, even for someone out of university with a good standard law degree,” says Melanie.
“Twenty years ago it was easy to get a training contract and you could more or less choose where you wanted to work. Now lots of law firms don’t give training contracts but take lawyers on as paralegals.”
Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice has a staggering 500 applicants for every training contract vacancy. “I tend to only interview those with good law degrees who state in their covering letter why they want to do family law specifically,” adds Melanie.
“I still like handwritten covering letters – you can tell a lot from someone’s handwriting and it shows they’ve put some effort in and not just done a huge mail merge.”
And once someone is qualified as a solicitor there are certain skills they will need to be a successful family lawyer which they might not necessarily require to be involved in the criminal or commercial aspects of the law,” she adds.
“Aside from a lot of common sense, a good family lawyer must possess an ability to remain objective and not to become involved in the emotion of a case, which is often a trap that perhaps younger lawyers fall into,” says Melanie, who was one of the original two partners in the Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice in 1996, having qualified as a Solicitor in 1989.
“They should have a sympathetic caring and understanding manner, an ability to remain calm and possess good organisational skills. They need to be an excellent communicator – both orally and in writing – and be flexible.
“You have to learn to expect the unexpected because divorce and family matters are often very emotionally charged and can quickly go off in different directions. Anything can happen in a day and it’s not unusual to have to scrap all your other plans to concentrate on one case,” adds Melanie, who has been a member of the Law Society’s Childrens’ Panel since 1996 and was one of the first two solicitors in Wales to gain entry to the Solicitors Family Law Association specialist panel.
“I also believe the best family lawyers are those that are creative and enjoy a willingness to try and resolve matters in an amicable and non adversarial way wherever possible.
“Often there are children caught up in the dispute and an aggressive lawyer will often only make things worse.
We spend most of our lives in work and it’s important to do something you enjoy – family law certainly fits the bill.”