The Family and Children’s Law Center of the San Francisco Bay Area is a unique non-profit family law practice run completely by female attorneys. Kris Fowler Cirby serves as the executive director of the office, and Abby Frost Lucha, Gabrielle Gaetani, and Kristine Guerra serve as staff attorneys. In this panel interview, they each offer their insights into their careers as public interest attorneys, and family law attorneys, specifically.
The Family and Children’s Law Center is a unique local organization—could you please describe for our readers its mission and what you do here?
Our mission: The Family & Children’s Law Center enables children and families to enjoy a more successful future by helping them to navigate the legal system. We provide high-quality, low-cost legal services to children and families on matters ranging from domestic violence to child custody and support. We are advocates for the needs and rights of children and serve all forms of families.
We represent low-income people with family law and guardianship cases in the Marin County Superior Court. Clients first come to our office at our weekly intake clinics, in which they are seen by one of our staff attorneys for 30 minutes. They leave with legal advice, a client action plan—explaining what we can do in their case, and what the cost will be, and an appointment to complete the next step. We are unique in that we provide court representation for about 95 percent of the clients for whom we prepare motions. Our clients are approximately 65 percent women and about 40 percent Latino.
What drew you to family law?
Abby: I took a community property course during law school, and I also volunteered at the Family and Children’s Law Center during that time.
Gabrielle: I was initially interested in immigration law. As a bilingual staff attorney at the Family and Children’s Law Center, I take a lot of cases that intersect with immigration law, so I get to work within both areas of the law.
Kris: I worked for a small law firm after graduating from law school, primarily on insurance defense/construction defects. While working there, I took a few family law cases and really enjoyed working on those issues, so when I left that firm, I was lucky enough to obtain a job at the Family and Children’s Law Center and build a career in family law.
Kristine: I used to practice Landlord/Tenant law in San Diego. I represented monolingual Spanish speakers most of the time and really enjoyed it. When I moved and had kids of my own, I wanted to switch practice areas. At the Family and Children’s Law Center I still am able to represent monolingual Spanish speakers and practice family law.
Why did you choose to practice family law within the public sector?
Abby: My major was in Politics with an emphasis in public law. After volunteering at the Family and Children’s Law Center while in law school I felt strongly about representing those without equal means to legal representation. Family law is one of the only areas of law that can impact a client’s day-to-day life. Our clients are deeply impacted by how much child support they receive, what the visitation schedule is, and whether they are protected by a domestic violence restraining order. I can help clients with obtaining stability.
Gabrielle: I debated whether to go to law school or social work school so I always knew that I wanted to have a job where I was helping people and providing a service for people in need.
Kris: I think what drew me to working within the public interest sector is largely the same thing that drew me to family law, in general, and that was the feeling that I was making a difference in peoples’ lives in a way that truly matters. People are very emotional when they are going through a divorce and working through custody issues. I practiced construction defect law where I met my actual client only once in seven years. I am now impacting my clients’ lives in a way that is not comparable. Family law is much more central to peoples’ quality of life, as the court decisions impact their financial and emotional stability.
Kristine: After college I spent two years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I worked with various non-profits at the grass roots level. Upon returning to the United States it was important for me to continue that work at home. I have a Master’s Degree in International Relations and nonprofit management. Being able to mix my background in the public sector with my law degree is truly rewarding. I love working one-on-one with clients and our work directly impacts our clients’ daily lives.
What is the most challenging aspect of your career? The most rewarding?
Abby: The most challenging part is the clients, because they are in such a raw emotional state at the time in their life when they come to us. The most rewarding part is knowing that I got to serve someone who needed my help, and who wouldn’t have been able to afford private attorney fees, and would have had difficulty navigating the legal process by themselves. We send out a client feedback survey whenever we close a case, and we have something like a 93 percent positive rating, so it is rewarding to know that our clients think we are doing a good job. That recognition is rewarding.
Gabrielle: The most challenging aspect is the sheer volume of the caseload—we work with so many clients, and there are so many people who need our help. I think the most challenging aspect is just balancing the needs of all of our various cases and making sure that we dedicate enough time to each one. As for the most rewarding part—this is not the type of job where people are sending us gifts, or even “thank you” notes, because it’s a tumultuous time in our clients’ lives. We didn’t choose this career path for any substantial rewards—so we have to find reward in the fact that we are helping people who need us.
Kris: The most rewarding part of this career is knowing that we helped someone when they needed help the most: the victims of domestic violence who feel relief when we get them a restraining order; the parent who knows they can pay the rent with their support order; or the parent who got a timeshare schedule that allows them to get a job or help their child with homework. Seeing the gratitude and knowing that they got a better result because we were able to help them is very rewarding. The most challenging aspect of our work is the volume of cases we handle. Our four attorneys meet with over 1,200 clients on a schedule that is equivalent of 2.5 full-time employees. I only see clients 50 percent of the time, and Gabrielle and Kristine are both part-time. Yet, over 90 percent of our clients are happy with the work we do.
Kristine: I agree with my colleagues. It is very rewarding to leave court and know that we have obtained a restraining order for someone who is in fear – giving them the power to protect themselves, obtaining more time for a parent to spend with their child, getting a client custody so that they can obtain a passport or getting a child support order that will help mom/dad make ends meet.
Since I’m conducting this interview in my capacity as liaison to the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, I’m wondering whether there are any particular challenges or alternatively any advantages to being a woman in the field of family law?
Abby: I haven’t felt much of a disadvantage with clients or in front of judges in being a woman because there is such a high percentage of female attorneys and judges in family law. However, I will say that being a female, and particularly a smaller-statured female, sometimes feels like a disadvantage in domestic violence cases, when I’m in court with my client and the abuser is a much bigger male. I think that one thing that is helpful to me in my work, is not so much being a woman, but being a parent and being a mom, because I can understand how my clients feel as parents. When I’m thinking about custody, I know what’s reasonable or acceptable as an attorney, but I can also consider what I would be happy with as a parent if I were in that situation. It helps me to empathize with my clients as well, and understand their concerns and where they’re coming from.
Gabrielle: I also don’t think there is much of a disadvantage to being a woman attorney in the field of family law- family law has a very high percentage of female lawyers, at least in the state of California. And in Marin County, there are not only many women family law lawyers, but also many women family law judges. Both of the judges who hear all of our cases are women. I also agree that being a parent, aside from helping me empathize with my clients’ situations, is also helpful for logistical reasons. I can think about how my kids were at a given age, and this helps me figure out whether a certain custody arrangement just makes sense from a logical standpoint for a child of that age.
Kris: I think we are lucky to be practicing not only in the Bay Area, but also in Marin County where the implicit or explicit bias other female lawyers face is mostly absent. We have an amazing bench with strong women, and a very progressive bar. Yet, I have been told I am aggressive and have been called a bully by male attorneys. I have heard from other female lawyers around the country that some courts can be hostile toward women attorneys. We are lucky to experience more challenges as a public interest lawyer. Oftentimes we will be representing a client against opposing counsel from a private firm, and private attorneys often have a misconception that, as public interest attorneys, we are not as effective or that we are inexperienced.
Shawna Hoch [Administrative Coordinator of FACLC]: As the administrative coordinator I agree that I’ve noticed more of a misconception about our attorneys, based on them being public interest attorneys, rather than women. Many times we have potential clients call our office, and they tell me that they want to speak to a real lawyer and ask who in our office is a real lawyer. Many of our clients are women themselves, so these are often women asking to speak to “real lawyers.” I don’t think this is due to sexism—I think it’s based on the misconception that you have to pay a lot of money for a lawyer and to get quality legal representation. People assume that if they’re not paying for legal services, they will not be adequately represented or that our lawyers must not know what they are doing. One thing I have noticed though, is that our clients will sometimes say they want a male attorney, or they will use masculine terms, along the lines of “I need a real bulldog of an attorney,” or “I need a man who will be a bulldog.” I tell them that we do indeed have bulldogs here at the Family and Children’s Law Center, but they are all women.
What advice do you have for law students considering a career in family law? What considerations should they take into account and what kinds of opportunities should they seek out?
Abby: I would encourage students to seek out internships with a family law office to gain firsthand experience. Especially within the public sector, where the caseload is high and students can gain more hands-on experience, this is the best way to determine whether it’s a suitable practice area.
Gabrielle: I would recommend that students intern with a family law judge or with a family law court because it is very fast-paced and you will see many cases and many different types of disputes. You will get a feel for the types of cases you will take on as an attorney and this will be a good way to determine whether you like doing this type of work.
Kris: Practicing family law is very different than other types of law. I would encourage law students to do an internship with a law firm or non-profit organization, or have an externship in a family law department. The emotionality of the cases can really affect lawyers, so I would encourage exposure to the types of facts early to determine if it is right for you. We have had a handful of volunteers who leave after a short period because they were not prepared for the raw emotion.
Q7: Additionally, how do you network/job search within the field of family law since this is typically not an area that big law firms or even most midsize firms offer, so students will not find these employment opportunities through streamlined processes like OCI?
Abby: The best way to network is to meet the attorneys and judges in the county. Be active in the local bar association. Most, like Marin County, have barrister groups for young attorneys. Volunteering at local legal organizations is also a great way to develop legal skills and meet many local attorneys.
Gabrielle: Attend family law bar events.
Kris: Ask for informational interviews, meet for coffee—I often meet new attorneys and find out what they’re interested in, offer to have them volunteer here, and recommend them if we hear of anyone hiring. Basically, just get in front of family law attorneys and make sure they know who you are—word of mouth is the best way because often the family law bar is a small legal community.
Kristine: If you speak Spanish, keep up with it and take some legal classes in Spanish if you can.