Practical Skills-Building in Family Law With Skills Course: A Student’s Experiential Education at Hofstra Law
When I first started the Family Law With Skills course back in August, I had a limited family law background and I knew that it was a real potential career path for me. However, within a matter of weeks, with the help and guidance of Professor Andrew Schepard, I knew that it was the career path for me.
At the beginning of the semester, Professor Schepard asked the students what they hoped to learn from the class, and then at the end of the semester, he asked what they did in fact learn. What I learned during the semester was an extraordinary amount. I learned not only the legal doctrine of family law but also the necessary practical skills that go hand in hand with it. Throughout law school you are taught that one of the keys to a successful career is networking, and Family Law With Skills provided an abundance of networking opportunities with numerous family law professionals.
Family Law With Skills is like no other class that I have ever experienced before. The wealth of opportunities makes it so much more than just a substantive law class. On our very first day we were introduced to an incredibly exciting new project called the Navigator Program. The Navigator Program was a pilot project which involved law students helping self-represented litigants at the Nassau County Matrimonial Center by providing them with legal information (not advice) to assist them with their cases. The Navigator Program gave us fantastic exposure to matrimonial court practice, and not only were we helping self-represented litigants with preparing required paperwork, but we learned the procedures involved with filing for divorce. Examples of what we did included helping self-represented litigants fill out motions, orders to show cause, and statements of net worth, and in some cases we helped them put together their entire judgment of divorce packet for submission to the court. This is something that you do not learn in a classroom, and if it were not for the Family Law With Skills class, then we would not have had the opportunity to be involved in this rewarding and educational program.
From the first week of class we learned that Hofstra Law has a very strong group of family law alumni, and this was another benefit of this class. Within the first few weeks of class, Professor Schepard arranged a Meet the Panel dinner, which was a great opportunity to meet Hofstra Law family law alumni who were able to share their wealth of experience and knowledge with us and to address our questions. Questions that the panel answered covered a wide range of topics, such as how to balance your career and your personal life, how to make sure you always remain professional with clients, and how to properly present yourself in front of a judge and your opposing counsel.
Court observation is also a required assignment of the Family Law With Skills class. Students are encouraged to spend time in family court observing judges and lawyers. This is a great way to learn and provided an opportunity to see other lawyers putting into practice the law that was being taught to us in the class. I saw various matters, including child custody disputes, alienation issues, and parties even being held in contempt of court for failure to pay maintenance. This exposure to the courtroom allowed us to see how complex family law is and how exciting and contentious it can be.
Then we had Skills Weekend on Friday, Nov. 3, and Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, which provided the Family Law With Skills students the opportunity to put what we learned in the classroom and the courtroom to practical use in a mock courtroom. Preparation for Skills Weekend began when we were provided with a hypothetical family law fact pattern involving a contested custody situation, and we were then assigned to the wife’s side or the husband’s side, either as a party or as that party’s attorney. The first-year students welcomed the opportunity to play the husband and the wife and did a very convincing job in their roles. Professor Schepard taught a series of classes on mediation, negotiation, direct examination, cross-examination and opening and closing arguments. We were then able to participate in a client counseling session, a mediation session, negotiations and a trial, putting into practice all of the skills that we had learned throughout the first half of the semester. In addition to Professor Schepard, a team of family law attorneys who were all Hofstra Law alumni actively participated in the proceedings, as well as a family court judge. These individuals dedicated their time and energy to helping students improve their practical courtroom skills and provided the students with guidance as to what they believe makes a valuable family law attorney. On the second day of Skills Weekend, we attempted to resolve the issues through simulated mediation sessions led by Professor Paul Meller, associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, and the students working in Hofstra’s Mediation Project. Through all of the activities that our class participated in, Skills Weekend ended up being a tremendous bonding experience for all of us and provided us with the opportunity to learn to work together as a team, something that is critical in family law today.
In Family Law With Skills, we learned that family law in the United States is at a pivotal stage with many changes taking place, such as the rising popularity of collaborative divorce. Our class was invited to attend the Siben & Siben Distinguished Professorship Lecture and related symposium on interdisciplinary collaboration in family law, which was held at Hofstra Law on Nov. 10, 2017. Family law, alternative dispute resolution, and mental health professionals from all over the country came together at the symposium to discuss the role of interdisciplinary collaborative law in family law today and in the future. It was thrilling to able to network with many of the attending family law professionals and the Siben lecturer, Professor Forrest S. Mosten, a world-renowned expert in mediation and collaborative law. He spent an extended time with our class prior to the start of the program, during which we informally discussed interdisciplinary and collaborative law and its future role in family law. It was an inspiring, educational and exciting day for all of us, which we were able to enjoy as students of the Family Law With Skills class.
While learning all of these useful practical skills, networking with Hofstra Law alumni and other family law professionals, and being exposed to practice and procedure in the matrimonial and family law courts, the wealth of legal knowledge that we learned in this class should not be overlooked. The substantive law covered a wide range of subjects, including divorce, child custody and support, maintenance, domestic violence and child abuse, to name just a few. It is an active class where participation is key, and Professor Schepard gladly entertained debates between students on controversial issues within family law.
For those interested in family law or perhaps just a little bit curious, I strongly recommend this class. As an added bonus, you are also taught by Professor Schepard, whose knowledge and experience in family law is extraordinary. Family Law With Skills at Hofstra Law is not just a class, it’s a family with a real sense of a community. I hope one day to be a Hofstra Law alumna who is asked to participate in one of the many Family Law With Skills events.