When it comes to knowledge, there is both theoretical and practical. For the past year, I have worked as an extern in a family law courtroom under the supervision of the Honorable Harvey A. Silberman. The beauty of having a legal externship is that you gain both theoretical and practical knowledge at the same time.
Having never dabbled in family law, I came into my externship not knowing what to expect. Most externship programs offered by law schools are constructed in a way so that research and writing are at the center of their focus. Not so in Judge Silberman’s courtroom. While I did my share of researching the case law, my days were mostly spent side by side with the judge in the courtroom, drafting orders, reviewing judgments, attending chambers conferences, and assisting unrepresented litigants. After the days’ hearings were over, I helped the judge manage cases by contacting litigants and attorneys regarding various procedural issues. At the end of the day, we were able to confer with the judge and learn how and why various decisions were made.
Daily observation of hearings and trials imparted invaluable insight on family law practices and procedures. Sitting in on hearings and chambers conferences helped me to learn the secrets to good oral advocacy and professional responsibility. Watching how attorneys behaved in front of a judicial officer, how they controlled their clients during hearings, and how they generally interacted with opposing counsel taught me skills that would typically otherwise be mastered some time well into my career. Even simple tasks such as how to check‐in with the court clerk, or where to sit, or even how to address various members of the court were learned by spending time in the courtroom. Every newly minted attorney feels at least some level of uneasiness when making their first court appearance and it is comforting to know that I am already well-versed in general courtroom etiquette.
When the court was not in session, time was spent reviewing orders and judgments submitted by attorneys – an intimidating task at first glance. Everything from the documents themselves to the terminology used in them seemed overwhelming, and I was sure I would never get the hang of it. Luckily, practice does indeed make perfect. Doing actual legal work, even under the supervision of a judge, is initially very stressful. However, in a short amount of time I had learned how to draft orders for pro per litigants and within a month I was drafting dissolution judgments as ordered by the judge. And my work had to be perfect. If a draft I prepared was not perfect, Judge Silberman would make me redraft and redraft until it was perfect.
Aside from the document drafting and review that we did, one of the most challenging aspects of the externship program was the work we had to do with self-represented litigants. From aiding them in the preparation of their orders or judgments, to assisting those seeking temporary restraining orders, interaction was extensive and almost always challenging. Family law is justifiably the most emotion driven area of law due to people’s marriages, children, and financial livelihoods being at play. Emotions run high and litigants are often not willing to own their part in the family misfortunes. For this reason, I have personally experienced behaviors ranging from rude to downright belligerent even though the litigants knew me to be an extension of the court. While I understood the why behind their acrimony, it took time and effort to learn how to respond to such circumstances. Other factors that made it challenging to work with self-represented litigants were language barriers that often caused miscommunication, and education levels, which made the explanation of legal procedures difficult to convey. Through this type of involvement within the court system, I have been able to improve my interpersonal skills, as well as my professional responsibility and conduct – both of which are traits that lie at the heart of my future work in law.
Another unsettling reality that I learned about family law litigants is their frequent lack of child focus. Too often I have seen litigants completely lose sight of what is truly important – their children! Parents are quick to use their children as pawns in their fight against one another often not realizing how their conflict is impacting their children.
Sitting on the sidelines and watching cases unfold made it easy for all of us externs to judge those that came before the court. However, we very quickly developed an appreciation for the old adage of not judging a book by its cover. In this case, not to judge a person by how they presented. Personally, I came to the realization that I was naturally inclined to take the side of the person who was the better presenter. I found myself rooting for the party who spoke more eloquently or who dressed more respectably. It is easy to critique when one side is well put together and presents in a calm and collected manner while the opposing party is more of a loose cannon. However, too often we were proven wrong and we came to realize that things are not always as the initially may seem.
Finally, on a more personal level, my placement within the family court system has even helped shed light onto my own marriage. Every day that I watched a couple fight about their relationship was a life lesson for me. Witnessing problems ranging from trivial to flat-out cringe worthy I began to reflect on my own relationship, both its pluses and minuses. My perspectives changed and I began to appreciate all the good in my marriage, while also learning to analyze the negatives more thoughtfully. This type of self-reflection allowed me to see that my husband’s faults that once seemed so appalling, suddenly became borderline endearing because I had a metric to which I could compare them. While I entered into my externship hoping to grow as a legal professional, I also grew as a person through the practice of self-reflection and evaluation. Once again, the perspectives gained from the court proved more valuable than I could have imagined.
In the past year, my placement in Judge Silberman’s family law courtroom has offered more insight into the field of family law than I could have acquired in any law school family law course – I would know because I have taken them all! Having the opportunity to see the inner workings of the family law world has only solidified my desire to pursue this most personal and impactful area of law.