Oliver Woolley writes from New York

Towards the end of last year, I travelled to New York City, taking time away from Chambers, with the goal of being able to gain exposure to the workings and functioning of a US family law system. I wanted to take an opportunity to broaden my horizons, having considered that to learn from the practices of other common law jurisdictions would offer a unique and invaluable education.

In my first weeks of being in New York, through a contact provided by a colleague at the Bar, I met with a number of matrimonial attorneys. Fortunately, I was able to organize to undertake a placement at a firm with a specialist matrimonial practice in the heart of Manhattan starting March 2018. It had always been my intention when planning this period away to undertake the New York Bar exam; the intervening time was therefore spent studying for this examination.

During this study period I was delighted to take up the invitation of a New York matrimonial attorney to attend the local International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers Christmas party. It was an excellent chance to meet a number of New York international family lawyers and to share anecdotes of the various peculiarities of our respective legal systems. Of course, the inevitable “where’s the wig?” was asked numerous times!

Having sat for the Bar exam in late February, I commenced my placement at the law firm in March. The experience thus far has exceeded all expectations. I have already learned a great deal about New York matrimonial and family law practice in the past 10 weeks and have been able to accompany the attorneys at the firm on several court hearings.  I have also been tasked with assisting in the preparation of motion papers, pre- and post-nuptial agreements, separation agreements and settlement stipulations.  

First hand experience of “open courts” has given me much food for thought; aside from the well-established arguments of open-justice, one practical benefit that I had overlooked is that clients appear to be more relaxed knowing what their judge will be like! Another notable contrast relates to maintenance awards; in 2015 the State of New York enacted legislation creating formulas for calculating both the quantum and duration of maintenance awards – whilst the judiciary may exercise discretion in applying the formula, its mere existence allows for a greater level of certainty in advising clients and appears to assist greatly in expediting the negotiation process.

A very current topic in English family law is the issue of fault-based divorce. New York adopted “no fault” divorce in 2010; it was the last of the 50 States to do so. I have already assisted with a number of divorce matters in my time at the firm, not a single one has been pleaded on one of the other “fault” based grounds; I am led to believe that this is par for the course. Others have written far more eloquently than I ever could on the benefits of adopting a “no-fault” divorce system, however, I can say that in the majority of cases that I have assisted with, the “no fault” approach has engendered a more amicable separation process. Furthermore, I have noted that it accelerates the divorce proceedings so that focus can be placed on what is actually important; working out what is best for the children and how to divide the economic fruits of the marriage.

I feel very fortunate to be undertaking this placement and benefitting from the wisdom of the attorneys around me, which will no doubt stand me in good stead upon my return to Chambers. Happily, I can report that I recently found out that I passed the New York Bar exam and am now certified for admission to the New York State Bar.

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