Geez, I've been a member here for a while and haven't seen such an interest in family law as much as we have lately! There is a lot of overlap, so I recommend looking at the recentish posts as well as anything that is said here. That said, always happy to talk about family law. Responding both to OP and Sad World Order.
It seems like me, Calc, and Aurelieuse have fairly different experiences but, despite the different clientele, seem to share many of the same thoughts on the field. Also jumping from their contributions as well.
Recommendations for opportunities during law school that would assist in experiencing the field as a student
General client management and litigation skills are crucial to build. Family positions that are purely solicitor based are rare - most family lawyers start in the high conflict/high drama litigation before expanding. Get your feet wet by gaining experience with people. I know Western used to place students in the local Duty Counsel office and had students draft family pleadings in pairs. Other schools did the same. That is practical experience as well.
You'll want to take relevant course work as well. Tax, criminal, mediation/negotiation, wills/estates, trusts, bankruptcy, law & poverty, litigation courses, evidence, etc. Basically, the core family classes + the tangent areas that you'll touch upon +- more solicitor style family law or litigation style.
2) High-level pros/cons of family law
It's an evolving field with an active/friendly bar. I've made appearances in 7 or 8 different jurisdictions throughout my time. Save for dealing with the "big city lawyers" (seriously, dealing with GTA counsel is garbage for the most part), the bar is willing to chat about files, give mentorship advice, etc. It's refreshing compared to dealing with other civil lit lawyers.
Family law is constantly evolving. Collaborative law, mediation, arbitration, med-arb, parenting coordination, etc. are various ways for lawyers to expand their practice areas. People have their thoughts about these areas (private justice for the rich) but it adds a nuanced approach to law and separation. It's also addressing the clinical aspect of the job.
A good family lawyer can zealously advocate for their client while de-escalating conflict. Some lawyers send the nastiest letters that I have to essentially do a trigger-warning for my clients. Others attempt the "hard on the issue, soft on the person" approach, which the judiciary appreciates. I agree with Aurielese in that the first couple of years of practice is finding your voice as it's a very delicate balance.
That rides into a con of family law - it's emotional AF. It can be hella messy. Clients are often in distress. People are broken. There are also terrible people that use their children as pawns, refuse to pay any support for their children, or have very inflated sense of what they did in a relationship. Some people are reexperiencing trauma from the relationship and it's hard for them to open up. And others are flat out liars. Clients can be downright assholes. I've never actively hated that many people before but certain opposing parties or even my own clients *shudders*. I usually get off record if it gets to that point, though I do have some clients that I dislike that I can still objectively advance their interests for.
3) Reality of having a positive impact on children in this field - I would be entering this field, with some hope that I could assist in lessening the impact of major disruptions in family life on children, is this approach misguided or naive?
It's kinda naive and that's ok. The children aren't your clients. Your role is to get your clients to understand their rights and obligations. You can encourage your clients to be the best parents they can be, and encourage to de-escalate the conflict, attend therapy, and social work the fuck out of them - if a parent doesn't want to change, however, that's not our role and you're just going to burn yourself out.
I warn my clients about the law and try to come up with realistic plans that work in their situation. Ultimately, it's not our life so I try to craft orders that are forward thinking to avoid future litigation/motion to changes.
You can be the lawyer to help someone out in a very distressful time of their life. You can help them understand and navigate a confusing process and try to guide your client into how to be more neutral in their discussions, to create healthy boundaries and the like. You can also help family dynamics by not being that douche lawyer that are yelling in court about negligence
4) Any other advice or things you wish you knew before entering the field of family law!
Family law itself is not that complex. The Family Law Rules are simplified from the Rules of Civil Procedure. It's pretty organized and easy to pick up the basics of the field. Higher level practice is neat as there are intersections between criminal, estates, trusts, bankruptcy, immigration, child protection, etc.
The Bench and Court Staff know who the good lawyers are. Reputation is very important. We're officers of the court but building a good reputation is important. Judges in my jurisdiction know that I am generally very resolution/solution focused. 2 judges in particular really listen when I press hard on some points as they trust that I've made numerous attempts to get the other side on board/offered creative approaches towards resolution.
It takes time to build reputation and your voice. It's a fine balance. I've learned a lot about how I deal with stress, interruptions and my own issues stemming from coming from a divorced family. I've learned to walk away from some issues and have grown from tit-for-tat. It's hard, especially when some senior counsel like to throw their weight around. Or, asking for a follow up and the lawyer lashes out.
One of my concerns about family law is the nature of payments. I've read that some clients can be reticent to pay up and can be quite vindictive. Is this behaviour common? Does it make family law more difficult to practice as a solo practitioner?
No money in trust = no work done. I mean, I struggle with that, especially as conferences are coming up. I've gotten better at reminding people that I don't work for free and get past their emotional manipulations. Most clients DO want to pay for your services though.
I often explain how a retainer works and compare it to gas in the tank. No gas means I can't drive. Get your money up front! That's on you as a business person. There are creative ways, such as getting a credit card on file and the proper designation.
SPs still have admin assistants who can chase people down/send out top up requests. You'll need someone to separate you from your clients - my practice became much more efficient once I had a competent assistant that could handhold some clients and free me to work on pleadings, solicitor work and litigation.
Does family mirror some other areas of law where larger or more competitive firms exist, drawing more heavily on high performing students? Or is it a more decentralized practice with few large players?
Depends on where you are. There are amazing family lawyers that are doing primarily legal aid work and some amazing family lawyers that deal exclusively with high networth individuals. Family law is largely done by SPs and small firms. I again agree with Aur in that it's hard to tell whether a candidate will be good based on grades - you either have people skills or you don't. There are heavy hitter names, such as Epstein, and some larger firms that have their token family lawyer and some high end boutiques. Sometimes it's simply because a lawyer has been in the area for a while that they get the bigger files. Be available and your reputation will grow.
There are mills out there that are equivalent to criminal lawyer dump trucks. I recall a certain firm that seemed to have been hiring new associates for over a year in the Ontario Reports (Edit. Just checked OR and they're still seeking associates 🤣) I can't fathom what the turnover rate was for them given how long they advertised for. I also see some snakey lawyers forcing young calls into fairly abusive situations. I've been fortunate that my experience was in duty counsel, SP and a great small firm that respects me and wants me to grow.
How much of a family lawyers job is more rote (filing certain papers or motions) and how much involves research (trying to find an approach for a certain case or issue)?
Depends on the practice! I primarily focus on decision-making/parenting time issues so my pleadings are fairly routine. I rarely have to delve in factums as my motions tend to be short, or it's a very basic regurgitation on the law. There are routine family cases that don't need to be attached in a factum. Legal Aid Ontario has updated memos that you can look to for research (if you're on the panel).
Many pleadings are routine. It makes the job easier and helps keep track. Judges don't want to read about how garbage the other parent is - they want to know why your client's plan is in the children's best interest. Your client might love all the jabs that you take but the bench won't.
I keep updated with interesting cases from corollaryrelief and LAO Law.
Re: Child Protection
I disagree with Calc on one issue though - child protection is not formally "family law". There are intersections but most family lawyers are fairly ignorant about Child Protection issues/laws. It's more akin to criminal law as it's the intersection between between the State. Except, well, a good chunk of CAS lawyers I've dealt with have very little understanding of hearsay and permittable evidence. And Charter need not apply! It's also surprising at how ignorant some of the CAS supervisors are about family law, despite having access to legal counsel...
It can be very gratifying working on CP files. It can also be very sad. There can be really interesting triable issues with some fairly sophisticated legal arguments presented. It also can leave you speechless at how cold the State can be, and also give you hope when the State really does work with the family for the better of the unit. It's not for everyone (and certainly don't fault Calc for not enjoying the work. There are many areas of law that are not for me, just as CP is not for them) - just wanted to clarify on that point.