John F. Kennedy University College of Law launched the Children, Families and the Law (CFL) program in 2012. Our intent was to create a specialized curriculum for students interested in exploring the wide and wild world of family law.
We did not want to adopt the traditional narrow approach of classroom lectures. Rather, we wanted to address the expanding law affecting children and families in a way that provided students both the necessary doctrinal law as well as the specialized practice skills so critical to a modern family practice.
CFL’s Double Punch: Substantive Law Plus Specialized Practice Skills
The substantive law component of CFL focuses primarily on the basics of family practice: Establishing parentage, custody and visitation, family violence and child and spousal support. A separate Community Property class covers the principles of the equitable division of the marital estate.
CFL supplements traditional family law doctrine with overviews of the most common “crossover issues” collateral to family practice such as juvenile dependency, adoption, guardianship, immigration and elder abuse. Crossover issues are often taught by attorneys with a particular expertise who guest lecture, combining substantive law and practice tips.
The CFL practice skills component includes learning specialized writing skills, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques, the role of experts in CFL litigation and work in the University’s Double Pro Per Settlement (DPPS) clinic. Students are also required to do a 60-hour externship with an experienced, practicing CFL attorney.
The CFL Practice Skills Quartet
Specialized writing skills are developed throughout the course in conjunction with a unit of substantive law (Marriage, Parentage, Family Violence, Custody and Family Support). Students begin with the preparation of Judicial Council forms. As a final, the students prepare and argue a Request for Order (RFO) with Points & Authorities on a complex issue such as relocation or implied income.
Students learn about the role of outside experts in family practice with a primary focus on mental health and financial experts. Students learn when an expert is needed, the different roles of court-appointed joint experts and those hired by one of the parties, how to direct and analyze expert reports, and how to prepare expert testimony in mediation and in court. We are introducing a new CFL seminar this summer for both law and graduate psychology students titled “Introduction to Psychology in Family Law” that I’ll be co-teaching with Phil Stahl, Ph.D.
Double Pro Per Settlement (DPPS) Clinic
Students must also participate in the DPPS clinic, which is held the second Tuesday evening of the month from February to November. The clinic began in 2013 out of a partnership with the Contra Costa Superior Court and Contra Costa County Bar Association.
When a case is set on the DPPS calendar, the court directs both parties to attend the clinic prior to their first settlement conference, which is conducted by volunteer attorneys in the general family law departments.
The clinic provides students an opportunity to apply ADR class exercises in a real-world venue. Volunteer attorneys begin the clinic with a brief user-friendly summary of dissolution law and procedures, and then along with the students, they help the parties identify and update the forms and evidence they will need for court.
They also prepare a checklist of agreed and disputed issues for the attorney conducting the in-court conference and help mediate agreements where possible. The DPPS clinic is held on the University’s Pleasant Hill campus, and is conducted in the evening so the litigants do not have to miss work.
From July 2013 through 2014, the DPPS has brought over 66 percent of the 59 cases to final judgment in an average of five months from clinic to filing. The DPPS clinic continues to evolve and improve. We need more volunteers to give us an evening or two each year. Contact details are provided below.
The final practice skill component of the program is a 60-hour externship supervised by an experienced CFL attorney. We have been fortunate to work with private practitioners and organizations dedicated to providing students a meaningful experience working on CFL cases at all stages of litigation including supervised court appearances.
To date, students have completed CFL externships in the Family Law Division of the Contra Costa Superior Court, Bay Area Legal Aid, with court-appointed attorneys representing children and parents in Juvenile Dependency courts in both Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the Department of Child Support Services (DCSS), and with several experienced family law practitioners.
CFL Attorney Volunteers
There is no mandatory pro bono service requirement for practicing attorneys, although the State Bar of California may soon follow New York in mandating 50 hours of pro bono service as a requirement of admission.
Litigants are self-represented in over two-thirds of family cases statewide. We should all do the best we can by volunteering to level the playing field for family litigants facing significant losses of custody and income and the often-negative outcomes experienced by their children.
Until there is funding for self-represented family litigants, you can help by volunteering with the CFL program in one of three ways. First, you can volunteer to spend one or more evenings a year at the DPPS clinic. Second, you could supervise a CFL student externship next spring. Finally, you can share your expertise as a guest lecturer.
Thank you for supporting the CFL program.
Commissioner Josanna Berkow retired in 2013 from the Contra Costa Superior Court after 20 years on the family law bench. She is an adjunct professor at the John F. Kennedy University College of Law in Pleasant Hill, where she teaches and serves as faculty advisor for the Children, Families and the Law program. Commissioner Berkow also works as a temporary judge to review, sign and file uncontested Judgments of Dissolution. Contact Commissioner Berkow c/o Karen Olson, Legal Document Assistance at (925) 640-2069 or firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.