In the digital age, families are often blended, complicated, and conflict-prone. There’s no shortage of demand for family lawyers in California and across the U.S.  Keeping families whole and happy is an important job with plenty of opportunities. 

Becoming a family lawyer in California involves meeting the state’s licensing requirements and demonstrating competency in a specific field of practice. There are various ways to become licensed as an attorney in California if you aspire to specialize in family law. 

Read on for more information on how to become a family lawyer in California. 

What do family lawyers do?

Family lawyers work with clients to address legal issues pertaining to families, including divorce, child custody, adoption, child support, and domestic violence. 

They can assist with a wide variety of legal matters, including:

  • Marriage and divorce (including prenuptial agreements)
  • Child custody and visitation
  • Adoptions
  • Relocation
  • Civil litigation (including contract disputes)

Family law also involves specialized, complex matters such as:

  • paternity disputes
  • prenuptial agreements
  • paternity lawsuits
  • inheritance trusts
  • guardianships/conservatorships
  • wills and trusts
  • inheritance tax issues

Family lawyers can specialize in different areas of the legal field, including wills, estates, real estate, trusts, business law, and more.

The demand for family lawyers 

The demand for family lawyers in California is on the rise, as families across the state face more legal issues than ever before. 

While recent trends show that both marriage and divorce rates are on the decline, divorce rates in some states continue to be on the higher side.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the states with the highest divorce rates in 2019 include:

  • Arkansas    10.70 percent
  • Oklahoma    10.40 percent
  • Nevada    10.20 percent
  • New Mexico    10.20 percent
  • Kentucky    10.10 percent
  • Wyoming    10 percent

While divorce is a key area of family law, there are wide-ranging issues that family lawyers handle. These relate to custody, adoption, child support, pre-nuptial agreements, family business management, to property disputes. parents are facing a wide range of legal challenges. 

Cases get complicated particularly when it comes to complex issues such as international marriages, assisted birth methods, and multiple family members being involved in a feud.

Consequently, there is a growing need for skilled family lawyers who can help them navigate these issues.

Pathways to becoming a family lawyer

The requirements to become a family lawyer vary by state. Generally, you must have a degree from an accredited law school and pass the bar exam. 

Other requirements include experience working in the legal field and an interest in a particular field, such as family law. In addition, some states require certification from a professional organization, such as the National Conference of Family Attorneys. 

Some states have reciprocal licensing agreements that allow family lawyers to work in other states without having to take additional exams or pay additional fees.

While there are many paths to becoming a family lawyer, some attorneys transition from another area of law such as real estate, trusts, estates, or adoption law. 

Others undergo additional training after passing the bar exam, completing certificate programs in family law offered by most law schools, or obtaining a master’s degree in family law. 

Becoming an attorney requires extensive education and training, but here are the steps to becoming a family lawyer.

Basic education

As mandated by the State Bar of California, individuals who want to practice family law will need to have undergraduate education or a Bachelor’s degree.

At this stage, courses in psychology, political science, or psychology can help you specialize in family law. Taking up additional courses in public speaking and communication will also help you prepare for a career in family law.

Alternatively, you can also complete CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) with a minimum score of 50 to meet the requirement for pre-legal education in California.

Law degree

In order to become a family lawyer, you must also have a law degree or Juris Doctor (J.D) to practice law. This degree can be earned from any university and will most likely include courses in both civil and criminal law.  To apply to law schools, you will need to take the Law School Admission Test or LSAT. 

The LSAT, administered by the LSAC (Law School Admissions Council), tests applicants in multiple areas including logical and analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, and verbal reasoning skills.   Students typically take prep courses and practice exams to crack the LSAT.

In addition to obtaining a high GPA in your undergraduate studies and a good LSAT score, it is important to write a strong personal statement and obtain letters of recommendation. This will improve your chances of gaining admission into a law school. 

When selecting a law school, ensure it is an American Bar Association-accredited program. While this is not mandatory, attending an ABA-accredited program will make you eligible to take up the bar exam in any state.

Juris Doctor programs typically take 3 years when you study full-time, or 4 years if it is part-time.  In the first year, you will study general law-related topics including torts, contracts, constitutional law,  legal research, property, and writing.

During your J.D. program, you can take up advanced-level courses to become well-versed in family law topics including divorce, child custody, marriage, adoption, and child welfare. 

Taking part in as many extracurricular activities as possible while in law school will also help improve your chances of being employed. These activities include mock trials and student-run publications.

During the final year of your J.D. program, you need to start preparing for the bar exam.  Along with the preparation, it is important to obtain family law experience by interning at reputed family law firms or family law clinics.

While a J.D. degree is a per-requisite to taking up the bar exam in many states, the state of California also allows individuals to take up the bar exam if they complete:

  • 4 years of study involving at least 864 hours of study at a registered correspondence or distance-learning law school
  • 4 years of study supervised by a state attorney or judge

The bar exam

The bar exam is administered by the states to test if you have the requisite knowledge to become a licensed lawyer. 

The California bar exam is administered twice in a year in February and July in different locations and consists of a series of tests given over two days.

The website of the State Bar of California has free study resources including sample questions and outlines that help you prepare for the exam. Other resources you can leverage include the website of the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

There are also bar exam preparation workshops and courses that you can take to prepare for the bar exam.

Some of these include:

  • Bar None Review preparation workshop in Orange County  
  • BARBI Bar Review bar exam prep course in multiple cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach
  • California Bar Review Course offered in many CA law schools
  • California Bar Exam bar review course offered by Themis Bar Review

On the first day of the exam, the Performance Test and essay questions are typically administered. 

The MBE ( Multistate Bar Examination) which features 200 multiple-choice law-related questions is administered on the second day. 

In California, you will need to also pass the MPRE or Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam exam before taking the California Bar exam. This exam focuses on law ethics.

Some states may also mandate passing the Multistate Performance Test and the Multistate Essay Examination.

You will need to be well-versed in all these topics to ace your California bar exam:

  • Civil procedure
  • Contracts
  • Community property
  • Real property
  • Torts
  • Constitutional law
  • Professional responsibility
  • Trusts, wills, and succession
  • Business associations

Once you pass the bar exam, you are officially licensed to practice law in the state.

what does a family law lawyer do?

Becoming a Certified Family Law Specialist

Given that family law is a competitive field with many established law firms and attorneys, it is vital that you differentiate yourself by becoming a certified specialist.

A Certified Family Law Specialist or CFLS is a family law attorney certified by the California Board of Legal Specialization.

To become a certified specialist in family law, you will need to demonstrate proficiency in the field by completing education and relevant experience. 

You will also have to register for and take up the Legal Specialist Examination in family law. While this is similar to the bar exam, it specifically covers topics related to family law.

After passing this examination, Certified Family Law Specialists must:

  • fulfill a minimum of 45 hours of continuing education in family law
  • demonstrate high levels of skill and experience in family law,
  • be evaluated favorably by judges or attorneys 

Continuing legal education credits can be earned by attending seminars or conferences or by taking up in-person or online courses.

In addition to the criteria listed above, Certified Family Law Specialists need to obtain specific training and expertise in aspects of family law including:

  • The counseling and psychological aspects of divorce
  • Division of separate and community property
  • Tax issues pertaining to divorce
  • Paternity litigation 
  • Non-marital issues
  • Legal separations
  • Guardianship
  • Child custody laws
  • Restraining order hearings

Certified specialists will also need to participate in at least 10 family law cases each year or 50 cases related to family law every five years.

Consider obtaining a Master of Laws 

A Master of Laws degree is not mandatory to practice family law but can open you up to new career opportunities. Some master’s programs enable specialization in family law.

Soft skills 

Family law is an area of law that protects, supports, and serves families. As a family lawyer, you will deal with everything from divorce to child custody to adoption. To become a family lawyer, you need to be comfortable with people and able to communicate clearly. 

You also need to be willing to take on sensitive cases and deal with difficult situations. In addition to being genuinely interested in helping people,  you need to be comfortable working under pressure.

Some other skills that are helpful for family law include legal research and writing, communication abilities, patience, and empathy.  Particularly, you will also need to understand psychology and how people think.  

You should also have good research skills. You should be able to do thorough research on your own and be able to find relevant information in seconds. You should also be able to efficiently organize your information into reports or spreadsheets. 

There is also a lot of paperwork involved as part of family law work. So it pays to have good organizational skills as well as attention to detail.

Finally, being a good listener is important. You will often be talking with clients who are upset or confused, so it’s important that you empathize with them and try to understand their situation.

To sum up, work on acquiring and strengthening these soft skills to become an effective family lawyer:

  • Problem-solving
  • Listening skills
  • Critical reading
  • Organization
  • Writing and editing
  • Oral and written communication
  • Research
  • Relationship-building

Stay on top of legal trends

Once you have a degree in your hand and have passed the bar exam, you are ready to begin your family law career in California. The first step is to look for a job at a reputed family law firm to gain experience.

Once employed, you will need to try to stay on top of new legal trends and issues. As you gain experience, you will be able to take on more challenging cases and specialize in family law topics such as wills, estates, or adoption law. 

As you know by now, family law is a challenging field and it takes a certain type of person to be successful in this field. You will need to be patient, organized, persistent, and good at raising your voice when necessary. You will also need to be able to handle even the most difficult cases calmly and compassionately while remaining firm and resolute.

One of the most important skills that family lawyers need to have is the ability to read between the lines. By doing so, you can understand what the client is asking for and determine whether there is a logical solution to be found.