Life As a Family Lawyer
Family Law is the black sheep of the legal world, often involving exhausting emotional entanglement and the ugliness of human nature. It’s not unusual to be met with a grimace and an emphatic “why?” when you express interest in family law. However, family law is perhaps the most empathetic and impassioned area of the law. As Professor Andrew Schepard says, “You often see good people at their very worst during a divorce. The family lawyer has to help stabilize them to resume their normal functioning”. To hopefully realign your unconscious beliefs and get a more accurate idea of what life as a family lawyer is like, Lexicon spoke to Datin Yvonne Raj, a partner at Jerald Gomez & Associates.
The scope of Family Law
Family law encapsulates many areas of the law. It covers the obvious matters such as child custody, divorce and adoption. However, it also extends to other areas such as property law, the administration of estates, bankruptcy law, etc. Clients also consult family lawyers for pre-marriage matters such as prenuptial agreements. As such, family lawyers do find it useful to have an arsenal of information that extends beyond family law available to them.
The Daily Life of a Family Lawyer
The first thing we set out to discover was the differences between family law and other areas of the law, in terms of the daily routine. Now, one of the few things that lawyers everywhere agree on is that there is no fixed, everyday routine. However, this routine, while fluid and ever-changing, does involve a few key components. Datin Yvonne has a general routine that involves meeting with clients, mediation meetings with other lawyers, legal research and attending court proceedings. One difference that Datin Yvonne highlighted as being a contrast to her civil cases is the amount of hand-holding required throughout her daily activities. There is a lot of emotion involved, given the subject matter that you deal with. Thus, while her job is to dispense legal advice to her clients, she also ends up giving them a lot of life advice. It’s not easy, going through the complete breakdown of your family, and family lawyers need to develop a heightened sense of sensitivity and kindness that might not be as prevalent in other areas of the law.
Why Family Law
Next, we sought out the reasoning behind their decision to pursue family law. Datin Yvonne, rather candidly, said that “I didn’t choose family law, family law chose me”. The catalyst here was she and her husband starting their firm. As she explained, when it’s your own practice, you do everything and won’t say no to any case, whatever it may be. Thus, she took it on and soon became enthralled with the process. Though a terrible roller coaster, in the beginning, the satisfaction that came with winning that case was incomparable.
Later in the interview, she revisited this first case, which left a deep imprint on her. Despite having worked an innumerable number of cases over 30 years, she describes it as the most memorable moment of her career. This case was long and arduous, involving a custody battle and sexual assault allegations which by extension involved an unnamed hospital’s Abuse Team, a Professor of Psychiatry, etc. Datin Yvonne spent many a night troubled and deeply concerned for the children involved and for the horrific situation her client was in. But this journey was well worth it, with Datin Yvonne and her client emerging victorious after a battle up to the Federal Court. Her place in the world of family law was later cemented when she moved to Australia and worked in a legal firm as a consultant while completing her accreditation for admission to the Bar in WA. A firm that she chose for its geography, being a 5-minute walk from her college, which coincidentally, was one of the top family law specialists in Perth. This striking coincidence gives even more truth to her statement about family law choosing her when you consider that it was especially unusual for top legal firms to be located in the suburbs. And thus was her first foray into the world of family law, and the reason that she, 30 years later, is well known in the field of family law.
Things They Love About the Job
The Clients. Another area of commonality between Datin Yvonne is her love for their clients and the fulfilment she derives from practising family law. Being able to help someone through what is possibly the lowest moment of their life and watching your legal effort bear fruit is so rewarding.
“You carry them through their most vulnerable period and see them come out stronger and more resilient. I have clients who have been my clients for 20 years. They send me pictures of their children graduating and you get to forge a relationship with your clients that you don’t get to in corporate litigation.” - Datin Yvonne
The Biggest Challenges
However, the clients are akin to a double-edged sword, in that they are also the most challenging part of the job. Some clients can be very difficult and fancy themselves to be avenging warriors, with a thirst for blood and revenge. They can be the bane of your existence. Dealing with a client who isn’t on the same page as you is exhausting; especially those delightfully special clients who come to you after they’ve been to three different lawyers and were unable to get along with anyone or are simply pursuing something that does not exist within the ambit of the law.
As a lawyer of her standing, Datin Yvonne has gotten good at mitigating these challenges. However, for budding lawyers, this is a skill you’ll have to acquire with experience. Learning how to say no is easier said than done and might not be feasible if you’re working under somebody. In that case, the solution is to approach your mentor or a senior lawyer and say that you’re having difficulty and need some help.
Another challenging aspect of the job is the fact that you do inevitably become emotionally involved with your clients. This can often lead to precarious situations, such as perceiving the other side as the enemy.
“Don’t demonise the spouse. They are just people in a bad situation. And you can’t see the other lawyer as the enemy. They’re not. They’re just doing their job. You’re going to see them next week in a different case. You can’t attack them personally and you have to learn to divorce the emotion.” - Datin Yvonne
Whenever a client approaches Datin Yvonne wanting a divorce, her first question is always “Are you very sure?” After all, there is no point in poking the hornets’ nest if you’re not going to follow through with the decision. Quite frankly, this is advice that should be adopted. Poking a hornet’s nest at any point in time will undoubtedly lead to the nest-poker being stung, and divorce seems like a particularly painful sting with potentially very long-lasting effects.
Her next step is always to suggest counselling first, employing one of the many psychologist referrals she has. Many couples find that they just need a little help getting through a rough patch and that this is merely a part of their journey, not the end of it. She has, in fact, had clients get back together after the entire process is complete but before the courts have issued the decree absolute.
One recurring sentiment derived from all Datin Yvonne’s anecdotes is that the cold, hard truth is you will sleep with all your client’s problems. This is an intriguing point, and when Datin Yvonne was questioned about it, she imparted a particularly important lesson. You have to draw a very careful line between caring for your client and being a good lawyer for them. Your job as an officer of the court is to give them their options and facilitate their decision. It is always your client’s decision. Sometimes, as an outsider, you have a very clear and informed opinion about what the best course of action is. And your clients might go right ahead and choose the opposite of what you advise. You can try to make them see it your way, and paint a very clear picture of the outcomes of their decisions. However, at the end of the day, it is their decision to make, and it is a decision you must accept.
This is an especially pertinent point in cases involving physical or emotional abuse where the victim finds it very hard to make a decision. Datin Yvonne, when faced with these instances, gives them avenues such as safe houses and women’s help organisations to give them the confidence and the autonomy to make their own decisions. She once had a case where a client came in wanting a protection order, and already had a scar on her face from a situation involving her husband and a parang. After preparing all the necessary documents seeking a protection order and an injunction from the court, her client came in 2 days later having changed her mind, and deciding to stay with her husband. Despite any personal feelings Datin Yvonne has about the situation, she had to let go.
“I could not make that decision for her because it’s not my life. You have to learn to let go.” - Datin Yvonne
You need to take care of yourself. Lawyers tend to take on the stress of the people they are serving. Having a good support system is of utmost importance, especially in this field. You need to constantly be aware of your emotional state. Having worked in both Malaysia and Australia, Datin Yvonne compares the landscapes of the two countries, noting that the conversation about mental health in the Malaysian working community is taboo. The Malaysian Legal System is lacking an avenue that lawyers can reach out to, so lawyers need to actively build their own support system. Keep in touch with your friends and open up to them. If confidentiality is an issue, forge a relationship with your mentors and the lawyers around you where you can discuss the issues you are facing.
Do not specialise in one particular area of law straight out of law school. Datin Yvonne stressed this point very vehemently because, despite family law being a great area to practice in, you shouldn’t close yourself off to other areas for a few reasons. Firstly, within family law itself, you will need knowledge beyond just family law. As mentioned earlier, bankruptcy law and estate law are all common areas of law found in family cases.
Having knowledge and experience in these areas will make you a more well-rounded lawyer, capable of assisting your clients better. Secondly, the more exposure the better. Take the time to learn about what you like. Spend a few years learning, exploring and experiencing as much as you can before making any decisions. If you are set on family law, then be really good in that area from the get-go and master the subject matter.
Set your boundaries with your employers. Malaysians tend to subscribe to a very hierarchical system, one that is ingrained into our psyche. Most junior lawyers never see the senior partners and when they do, don’t feel comfortable approaching them. The art of speaking your mind respectfully in a palatable manner is a skill that you should acquire.
Always grow. Datin Yvonne encourages you to get involved in multitudinous activities. Attend seminars, learn new skills, stretch the boundaries of your mind. While not directly related to your career, these are all things that will enrich you and make you a better person, indubitably contributing to your career as well.
Lexicon hopes that the Life-As Series has achieved its purpose and given you a clearer depiction of what life within these areas of the law is like. We would, however, like to note that everyone has their own individualised experiences, and this article is purely based on the input of the lawyers we interviewed. On that note, we would like to take this opportunity to thank Datin Yvonne Raj. Lexicon could not have produced this article without her generosity, advice, and experience.