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Family Lawyers - An Endangered Species?

Last week I said goodbye to my junior/intermediate lawyer.

She has embarked on new challenges elsewhere (including some new areas of law). As I expected she would when I hired her. As I did when I was a junior.

I hired her when she was green in family law, after swearing that I would never employ another junior.

Since having my own practice, I have employed well over a dozen junior lawyers that I have done my utmost best to support, teach, encourage and mentor.

I have not been a perfect “supervisor” (far from it) but I have tried to be a fair, respectful employer. I have tried to instil in my juniors the need to think about the families they serve and how they will be left when the legal process is over. I have let them fall over and make mistakes to learn from. I have endured their eye rolling as I (again) drilled into them the importance of a well-placed apostrophe. Like an anxious mother sending her child to school for the first day, I tried not to angst about their first few court appearances. I have tried to support them through the inevitable hurdles and stresses, both in law and in life. I have tried to encourage them to seek out the answers for themselves, even when it meant biting my tongue because it would have been quicker for me to tell them.

I have been so proud of each and every one of them. My contribution has been made. My time of training juniors is over.

And therein lies the problem. We just aren’t training our juniors in the way we once did yet the demand for family lawyers isn’t dissipating. Family lawyers are becoming an endangered species. When it comes to failure to replenish our kind at the rates we need to, family lawyers are right up there with panda bears and Maui dolphin.

About ten years ago I was asked to attend a consultation with the Ministry of Justice about proposed changes to Legal Aid. I warned the Ministry of a foreseeable issue with the supply line of family lawyers. Firms were facing disincentives to recruit and train juniors. It was not a “glamorous, attractive” area of law. The costs associated with having a junior was getting too high. The supply line of future family lawyers was at risk of dwindling. I fear my predictions have come to fruition.

When I started in family law, I was one of a strong cohort of other graduates undertaking their apprenticeships and learning their craft in the courts of South Auckland. There was a strong culture of law firms taking on at least one, if not several, juniors. Now, graduates are lucky to find a lawyer who will take them on in a junior family law position. One by one, I noticed my colleagues leaving family law and the number of firms taking on juniors dwindling. Once my generation of family lawyers shuffles off to retirement, the ranks coming through won’t be sufficient to replace us. The clients aren’t dwindling in numbers though.

Why have we ended up in this predicament? I don’t have all the answers but some possibilities are:

1. The costs of taking on a junior are prohibitive. There is a direct cost and juniors are often not profitable for some time. Most firms seem to accept that as part of their firm’s growth plan and the contribution they feel compelled to make to their profession and to the next generation of lawyers. However, good quality supervision takes a lot of time and energy, something increasingly in short supply for senior family lawyers. Most often, the opportunity cost in terms of time spent is a disincentive that many lawyers are no longer prepared to pay.

2. Many family lawyers feel aggrieved that they put in the hard yards to train their juniors only for them to leave to go overseas or to be head hunted and dazzled by a fancier firm elsewhere. Insult to injury is added if the fancy firm doesn’t have an active programme of taking on graduates to replenish the pool of family lawyers.

3. Firms have changed. Certainly in Auckland, many firms have stopped having family law departments. Family lawyers, many of whom are women looking for flexible work solutions, have struck out on their own as barristers or sole practitioners. I don’t know the statistics but, in Auckland, it is a safe bet that significantly more family lawyers are self employed than employed in firms.

4. Juniors are changing. Family law is often not seen as an attractive option. No longer do they see their career paths as linear (get a job, train, work hard in that firm, get made partner) and confined to one career, let alone one area of law! They are just as likely to create their own job as they are to seek one working for someone else.

5. Perhaps we are just not set up to be great employers. We like law. We may not like managing a team. We know the finer details of the law and how to manage complex client transactions. We learned nothing at law school about building teams and empowering our team members. For some, all that is known of this is how not to do it from our own experiences as juniors.

Family lawyers may choose not to hire their own juniors but they can support those who do. If you are in a firm that does not have an active policy of replenishing what you take from the employment pool by recruiting and training graduates, don’t head hunt junior or intermediate lawyers from those who do actively train.

Encourage your colleagues who are training, don’t cut them down. On many occasions, I have heard colleagues who have never trained a junior, moan about how someone is supervising (or not) a junior. If you have constructive feedback about a junior, call their supervisor. If you have positive feedback about a junior, recognise they are being trained well and let their supervisor know and, here’s a crazy idea, thank them.

Maintaining the supply line of family lawyers is vital and we all have a role to play in this. If you’ve never considered training a junior, you will find that it is a hugely rewarding challenge. You get to make a contribution to the future of our profession and leave your mark, in some small way, on practice in the future. And the one thing you can't put a price on - nothing beats the optimism, zeal, energy and vibrancy of a graduate to put a smile on the face of the most cynical, worn down lawyer.

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