Constructing a Legal Education for a Career in Family Law

Family law and policy are important because families matter.  Most people regard family as one of the most essential things in their lives, right up there with work, health, friendship, economic security and love.  Families are complex and pervasively shaped by law. For decades family law cases have been the largest single category of civil filings and trials in the United States, about one third, as compared with ten percent each for torts and real property, and a bit more than ten percent for contracts.  Family practice offers people a career in the law that is attractive to many students, for apart from the practical importance of family law, it is intellectually fascinating. 

NYU Law has a strong program for students interested in family law.  We have among the leading scholars and practitioners in the country in the areas of children and the law.  Professor Peggy Cooper Davis was a Judge of the Family Court of the State of New York before joining the faculty and has written groundbreaking scholarship in the areas of child welfare and constitutional rights of family liberty.  Professor Martin Guggenheim is one of the nation’s leading scholars on children’s rights and has written widely on topics relating to children and the law, including the representation of children in legal proceedings.  Professor Randy Hertz is one of the leading experts in the United States in the area of juvenile delinquency and co-authored a trial manual on juvenile court practice, which is the leading work for lawyers who handle juvenile delinquency or child protection cases.  Professor Sylvia A. Law is one of the leading feminist scholars in the United States and has written many prominent articles relating to gender discrimination.  Professor Melissa Murray has written extensively on the legal regulation of the family and intimate life.  Her work encompasses such topics as marriage and its alternatives, the legal regulation of caregiving, and reproductive rights and justice.  Professor Linda Silberman has written extensively on such matters as divorce mediation and has shaped path-breaking legislation in New York for the mediation of custody and related matrimonial disputes. She is also is the nation’s leading expert on international child abduction and helped successfully negotiate the 1996 Convention on Jurisdiction Applicable Law, Recognition Enforcement, and Cooperation in Respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children.  

“Family law” may be divided into two categories—public and private. In the public field, the state is a regulating and/or initiating party, rather than simply the provider of a forum for resolution of private disputes.  Child welfare law, parentage determinations, and juvenile delinquency are prominent examples within the public field of family law.  The private field principally includes matrimonial law and divorce-related topics such as property distribution and child custody disputes.  Some lawyers work across both fields during their careers; others specialize in one over the other.  Commonly, lawyers working in the private field work at relatively small, boutique law firms that specialize in matrimonial law.  Practitioners in the public field commonly are employed in legal services or public defender offices, though many also practice in small firms.  Many of the lawyers in this field represent children, a specialized area of law practice because some of the ordinary rules of professional responsibility are modified to allow lawyers to set the objectives of the representation when their clients are very young.  Other lawyers represent parents, child welfare agencies and social service providers.  Many lawyers in family practice engage in more than one kind of representation.

Family law specialists appear in court regularly and frequently conduct evidentiary hearings. Because family law involves working with clients who commonly are experiencing the traumatic effects of familial discord or trauma, family law practitioners are also important as counselors, advising clients through stressful events and decision-making.  Family law practitioners frequently collaborate with forensic experts, such as psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers to evaluate or advise children, parents and child welfare professionals and to present evidence.  To avoid escalating harmful conflict through litigation, and due to increasing constraints on judicial fora, many family law practitioners are not only engaged in litigation, but alternative dispute resolution efforts, such as mediation, arbitration and negotiation.  Family law matters frequently involve international litigation, and work in private family law commonly requires estate and tax planning.

The Family Law Core Curriculum 

NYU Law offers several courses that should be regarded as the core of a family law curriculum. We recommend that all students take the first course and that students consider taking at least one simulation or clinical course. 

Family Law (LW10729.001)

 This introductory course, taught by Peggy Cooper Davis or Melissa Murray, surveys the federal and state laws concerning familial relationships and the policies and principles that undergird them.  It is grounded in constitutional, common law and statutory principles affecting the official formation and regulation of families.  Careful attention is given to the role gender and racial constructions have played in the development those laws.  The course focuses on the rights and obligations associated with marriage and other intimate partnerships and those associated with the conception, birth, custody and supervision of children.  Specific topics include marriage, marital property regimes, divorce, regulation of sexual conduct, child custody and guardianship, non-marital cohabitation, non-traditional families, parental authority over children, support duties, child abuse and neglect, adoption, and the use of assisted reproduction technologies.  Depending on the instructor, it may be offered for three or four credits.

Child, Parent & State (LW.11323.001)

This three-credit course is taught by Martin Guggenheim and focuses on the legal rights, responsibilities and disabilities of parents and children in the American legal system. Particular attention is given to the interplay and often conflicting interests of children, parents, and the State. It examines the historical background and development of the juvenile court, recent decisions involving due process rights of juvenile delinquents, the power of the State to intervene involuntarily into the family to protect children believed to be abused or neglected, the problems and issues involved in children in foster care, the rights of students, the rights of adolescents and “mature minors” in clashes with their parents, the right to sex-related medical treatment and the question of informed consent to medical care. Other subjects include adoption, the rights of unwed fathers, and third-party visitation (including grandparent visitation) laws.  Special consideration will also be given to the role of counsel when representing children.

Children’s Rights Clinic (LW.10422)

The Children’s Rights Clinic, taught by Jacqueline Deane, is offered each semester as a semester-long, 5-credit course. The clinic fieldwork involves the representation of young people in a variety of civil legal settings.  The seminar focuses on the issues in representing children particularly in child welfare proceedings.  Students have the opportunity to work in a legal setting providing representation to young people. For example, fieldwork sites that have been used in prior years include The Door Legal Services Center, The Juvenile Rights Practice of the New York Legal Aid Society and Advocates for Children. The fieldwork is complemented with a weekly 2-hour seminar that uses class discussion and simulation exercises centered around the various issues involved in representing young people. The seminar examines the role of a lawyer for child clients (including issues of professional responsibility) and the various models of representation provided by the fieldwork sites. The seminar focuses in particular on issues in representing children in child welfare proceedings. The seminar also provides an opportunity to examine broad, systemic issues in the Family Court system, including the treatment of youth and families based on race, class, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Children’s Rights in International Law (LW.10617)

This course is taught by Philip Alston.  Every state in the world, except for Somalia and the USA, has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a result children’s rights have subsequently come to play a major role in the human rights field generally – constitutions have been amended, legislative frameworks comprehensively revised, and specialist national institutions established. In addition, international organizations and non-governmental groups have adopted a child rights framework for many of their activities concerning children. Nevertheless, the field remains significantly under-theorized and there is a clear need for a better understanding of the conceptual and other underpinnings of policy and practice in this area. The seminar thus focuses on both the theory and practice of children’s rights, starting with the question of whether children really should be treated as rights-holders and whether this approach is more effective than the alternatives.

Consideration will be given to the key legal concepts and the framework of rights reflected in the CRC. Specific issues will include: children’s rights in the criminal justice context including the death penalty and corporal punishment; whether it is productive to think in terms of children’s rights to education, housing or health care and how such rights can be ‘enforced’; whether child labor should or could be banned worldwide; efforts to end the involvement of children in armed conflict; and child sexual exploitation. Various country case studies will be used to ensure that the seminar is solidly grounded in current realities. It also considers the pros and cons of US ratification of the Convention.

Conflicts of Law (LW. 10701)

This course, taught by Linda Silberman, is important for anyone interested in domestic or international litigation and in private international law more generally.  It explores the legal consequences of transactions touching on more than one state or nation.  In subjects that range from contracts and torts to family law and decedents’ estates, the course concentrates on the appropriate law that applies to such matters.  It considers conflicts of laws issues arising in marriage, and in particular, the validity of same sex marriage in a federal system as well as other conflicts issues involving divorce and custody.  It examines the rules governing choice of law, judicial jurisdiction, and recognition of judgments as developed in the interstate context and explores their application in the transnational setting. Included are important issues involved in international litigation, such as the recognition and enforcement of foreign country judgments.  Comparative aspects relating to jurisdiction and judgments as embodied in the EU regulation are also included.

Family Defense Clinic (LW.11540)

This clinic is taught by Christine Gottlieb and Martin Guggenheim. Clinic students participate in a year-long, 14-credit course that examines child welfare policy and practice. The clinic has pioneered an interdisciplinary model that integrates social workers into legal teams to ensure that representation includes securing appropriate social services and providing meaningful support for family preservation efforts. Graduate social work students join the seminar and fieldwork components of the clinic, and work in teams with law students. Central to all clinic work is attention to the coming together of law and social work, the differences inherent in the two fields, and exploration of the possible methods of collaboration.  The heart of the clinic is the opportunity to represent individual clients in Family Court. Clinic students work with lawyers from the Brooklyn Family Defense Project in serving as counsel for parents of children in or at risk of entering foster care in a variety of matters in Family Court, including child neglect and abuse cases, termination of parental rights proceedings, and permanency planning hearings.  Clinic students may also work with faculty on projects designed to improve child welfare policy and practice.

Family Practice Simulation (LW.12071.001)

This fourcredit simulation course is taught by Peggy Cooper Davis.  Through a program of readings, discussion, and simulated practice, students explore laws governing family life and work to develop their skills at interpreting and applying those laws and helping clients to manage their family lives in ways that comply with and take advantage of relevant law. Simulations focus on marriage and other intimate partnerships and on child protection.

Juvenile Defender Clinic (LW.11444)

is taught by Randy Hertz.  The Juvenile Defender Clinic is a year-long, 14-credit course that focuses on the representation of juveniles who have been charged with committing crimes. The clinic involves a mixture of fieldwork, seminars on criminal and juvenile law and litigation skills, and participation in simulated trials and hearings.  Each student will work with the teachers of the clinic and the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice (JRP) division in representing children accused of crimes in New York Family Court delinquency proceedings. The clinic is designed to allow students to experience all stages of the juvenile/criminal process. Students work on all aspects of the process, including arraignment, investigation, drafting of motions, motions arguments, negotiation, client counseling, suppression hearings, trial, and sentencing (which, in Family Court, may take the form of a contested evidentiary hearing).  

Supplementing the Family Law Core Curriculum

In addition to this family law core curriculum there are numerous courses that may be important to a career in family law. Please note that not all courses listed are offered every academic year.

Suggested courses for those primarily interested in family law:    

  • Accounting for Lawyers (LW.10007)
  • Advanced Mediation Clinic (LW.11031)
  • Alternate Dispute Resolution (LW.11368)
  • Civil Litigation (LW.11136)
  • Comparative Justice Clinic: Focus on Domestic Violence (LW.11968)
  • Estate and Gift Taxation (LW.11893)
  • Estate Planning (LW.10561)
  • Evidence (LW.11607) 
  • Federal Courts and the Federal System (LW.11836)
  • Income Taxation (LW.11994)
  • Mental Disability Law (LW.11255)
  • Negotiation (LW.12014)
  • Same Sex Marriage on Trial (LW.12184)
  • Sex Discrimination Law (LW.11198)
  • Sexuality and the Law (LW. 10529)
  • Education Law (LW.11448)
  • Human Trafficking (LW.11825)
  • Reproductive Rights and Justice (LW.12261)