The Role of the California Family Law Paralegal

By Dianna L. Noyes, RP®, M.S.
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Family law is probably the most diverse of all practice areas. It is one of the most emotional, personal and volatile areas of law. It requires a basic knowledge of many other areas of law such as real estate, bankruptcy, personal injury, taxes, business, and probate. 
Most people think of divorce when they hear the term family law. The field of family law includes: dissolution of marriage, legal separation, annulment, paternity, adoption, domestic violence, pre and post-marital agreements, cohabitation agreements, and domestic partnerships. It also often crosses the boundaries of guardianship and conservatorship. Custody, support, and the division of marital property are among the most extensive and comprehensive statutes. 

As a family law paralegal one must draw upon many skills, as well as knowledge and just plain life experience. Being a family law paralegal one learns to be a good listener and problem solver. Each client and firm is different.  Family law paralegals must be adept at balancing many clients and the facts of each case. They are an invaluable asset and provide quality and affordable services to the firm’s clients.
I wrote The California Family Law Paralegal, Second Edition (Carolina Academic Press, 2008) to thoroughly prepare students for what they will encounter in the “real world” as a family law paralegal. This book gives California family law paralegals a true sense of their value and place in the firm. It is also a book they should want to keep on their desk for easy reference. California family law is somewhat unique in that the practitioner must rely on the use of Judicial Council forms. While the forms have been created to be “user-friendly” particularly for those pro se clients, it is often difficult to understand what form should be used in a particular situation, when it should be filed and/or served, under what circumstances it must be signed by a Judge to be effective, what some of the terminology means, and most importantly, what are the consequences for improperly completing a form.
The California Family Law Paralegal covers not only the utilization of a paralegal in a family law firm, but the personalities and qualities that are well-suited for this practice area. The book discusses the importance of understanding the ethical concerns, particularly the unauthorized practice of law that can occur in family law because of the close contact the paralegal will have with the client, as well as how heavily the attorney may come to rely on the paralegal. Malpractice is another concern that seems to be inherent in the family law environment and is covered extensively in the book.
The text provides a case study, basic guidelines, legal theory and the tools to apply the student’s knowledge and skills to each unique client.  It is organized in a manner that will take the student through the dissolution process, start-to-finish.  The book then moves on to the topics of enforcement, modification, and other issues that can occur after a dissolution, paternity, or custody/support matter judgment is entered. As indicated, it also includes information on the adoption process in California, as well as domestic partnerships, and the significance of pre and post-marital agreements. 
Many students find this text interesting from a personal perspective. Some have been through a divorce or are considering one. Almost everyone knows someone who has been divorced and perhaps they couldn’t understand why certain rulings were made, why property was divided in a certain manner, or why support was ordered at a specific amount. Students who haven’t married also find this book gives them a different perspective on the subjects of cohabitation, having children, commingling property, and domestic partnerships. The most common comments I hear is that this book, and the subsequent course, have opened their eyes to many family law-related topics, given them a clearer understanding of what family law is, and is not, and helped them to realize they really knew very little about family law. 
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Dianna Noyes is a North Carolina paralegal educator and author. A former NFPA president and PACE® Registered Paralegal , she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from CSU, Sacramento; a Paralegal Certificate from UC Davis; and a Master’s of Science in Legal Studies and Public Policy from California University, PA. For a complete list of her books, click here.

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