This past week, I spent 8 days in Houston, Texas, at the annual National Family Law Trial Institute‘s Regular Program.
This was not a conference where you attend a few lectures and then spend the rest of the day at happy hour.
This conference was 9 to 10 hours a day of lectures and exercises to improve my family law trial techniques. The lecturers and coaches were amazing family law lawyers who are renowned in our profession.
After the day was over we were assigned projects to present the next day. So, all the student attendees returned to our hotel rooms and worked until midnight each day to prepare an opening statement, direct examination, cross-examination or closing statement
In our small classes we would cross-examine actors while the rest of our class would shout, “Objection” at us while we defended our questions to our imaginary judge.
If our classmates didn’t object our teachers, literally famous divorce lawyers who have represented the likes of Huma Abedin and Deion Sanders, would object even more vociferously.
When we were done with our exercise, we got extremely candid feedback that pulled no punches.
Throughout the process, we had to learn the most complicated issue a divorce lawyer can face: a business valuation.
We also had to learn how to bolster or dismantle a custody evaluator’s report (whether it be a Guardian Ad Litem or a psychiatrist)
Finally, on the 8th day, we put on a trial at the Harris County Courthouse complete with actors and actual business valuators who volunteered their time.
Professionally, this was one of the best weeks of my life and I will never do a family law trial the same way. I will never even do a basic evidentiary hearing the same way. I now know there is one way to do a family law trial perfectly and I can do it that way.
The reason why it’s so important for a family law lawyer to hone their trial skills is because, procedurally, family law is a completely different type of law.
Family law does not have juries in most states (including the two I practice in, Illinois and Florida). The attorneys and the judges in a family law case often backslide into becoming glorified social workers.
In the typical family law case, both attorneys will explain their understanding of what’s best for the kids and the judge will make a practical recommendation. The court just as flippantly tells the lawyers to divide the assets as close to 50/50 as possible. The family law lawyers then tell their clients to adopt the recommendation.
This may diffuse a tense family drama but the actual law does not work this way. If you want a decision from a judge, the judge is supposed to only consider the evidence. Evidence is testimony elicited by questions from a lawyer and exhibits formally submitted by the lawyer. Finally, the lawyer is supposed to tie up all that evidence by arguing how the judge should consider the evidence.
It is a lot of work to put on an actual trial but it has its advantages.
- It’s a lot of work for the other side, too. And, they might not know how to do it properly.
- Putting on a trial shows you give a damn. Trials don’t happen that often and if you’re willing to do it, the judge is going to take you seriously.
- The judge can see exactly who you are and what you’re like. The same goes for the opposing party.
- The judge will hear your entire story and your lawyer will summarize it in the best light during his or her closing arguments.
Finally, expect to see lots of articles from me about how to do a family law trial or evidentiary hearing.
Update: I attended the National Family Law Trial Institute’s Advanced Cross-Examination in May of 2022 seminar where I was coached by more nationally recognized family law attorneys on how to craft the perfect cross-examination.
If you have any questions about taking a divorce or family law matter to trial contact Chicago family law attorney Russell Knight