I just finished teaching Family Law for the third semester in a row at the CUNY School of Law. Every semester, I learn almost as much as I teach. It is a pleasure to have a beginner’s mind, as they say – to remember what it is like to NOT know. CUNY students are particularly inspiring – many are going back to school after or while they are working, and there is always a wide range of life experiences that they bring to class. Our discussions are dynamic, and there is a real sense of community and cooperation and encouragement within the class. This year was particularly challenging for them, as for all students, since we were meeting on Zoom.
Here are a few observations:
- There is the law – and then there is real life, and they can be very different. What seems logical based on the law does not necessarily compute when you apply those principals to a particular family. For instance, marriage is considered to be an economic partnership – but some couples really keep their finances separate throughout the marriage. Should they have to share once they decide to get divorced?
- Students expect the law to be black and white, but it’s not. For instance, people will often ask me, “How much will I have to pay in child support?” They want to know a definite answer. But even though we have a child support formula in New York, it’s not clear that a judge would follow it exactly. There are several factors listed right in the statute for why they might deviate from the formula. This makes for a more nuanced conversation, but can be harder for student – and clients – to grasp.
- It’s easier to understand the logic of the law if you understand the assumptions behind it. For instance, I come back to the concept that marriage is an economic partnership – which explains why retirement accounts that increase in value during the marriage are considered marital property (and therefore will be divided), even though they are titled in one spouse’s name alone.
- Laws that seem neutral on their face may have disparate impact on particular parts of the community. For instance, New York divorces are heard only in our supreme court (which, despite its name, is the trial level civil court), while cases involving other family disputes are heard in our family courts. The supreme court is generally a quiet place, and is really designed for people to have lawyers, who are mostly white. Our family courts look and feel (or did before Covid) have much more of a bustle to them. They are physically crowded, court calendars are busier, and the litigants are overwhelmingly people of color. The difference is striking.
- We all want what is fair. But we may have very different ideas of fairness. What seems fair in one situation may seem unfair in another. This is particularly true in family law. Family interactions and dynamics are complicated – and most often, there is no good or evil. That is why it is important for families to be able to craft their own solutions, when possible.
- The law is always catching up with real life! That is particularly true for LGBT families, where the law is evolving rapidly. Each family is so different — family law is never boring!
It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to help shape a few new attorneys! I can’t wait to see where life takes them!