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If you’ve ever had to explore your options for legal representation in a family law matter, you may have come across the term “certified family law specialist” when reading through prospective attorneys’ credentials.

You may even have noticed your own attorney signs off as “John Doe, CFLS” instead as “John Doe, Esq.,” and wondered why.

  • How is a certified family law specialist different than any other kind of family law attorney?
  • Who decides which attorneys can call themselves certified family law specialists?
  • When would you be better served by hiring a certified family law specialist over other family law attorneys? 

Let’s Start With What a Family Law Attorney Does….

Hear What We Do From Our Founder, Kathy Minella

Our family law firm helps families; we help them start new beginnings, break apart or even form a new family through adoption or surrogacy.

We help you and your family navigate what is often the most stressful time of your lives by taking care of the legal everything, so you can focus on what matters — your family.

So What's a Certified Family Law Specialist Exactly?

The California State Bar recognizes attorneys who have passed a rigorous set of requirements as specialists in their respective areas of law. Attorneys can be certified by the State Bar not only in family law, but criminal law; estate planning, trust, and probate law; immigration and nationality law; bankruptcy law; and more.

To become a certified specialist in one of these areas of law, attorneys must satisfy the following five prerequisites: 

  1. Passage of a written examination;
  2. Practiced law continuously for at least five years, with at least 25% of that time spent practicing in the speciality area;
  3. Completion of continuing education in the specialty area, above that required of general licensees of the State Bar;
  4. Favorable evaluations by other attorneys and judges familiar with the candidate’s work in the specialty area;
  5. Completion of a variety of matters in the specialty area. For example, a certified family law specialist must demonstrate experience with different types of family law cases, such as divorce, prenuptial agreements, adoption, child custody, child support, and domestic violence restraining orders, among others. 

It takes time, experience, and extensive knowledge to become a certified family law specialist.

Furthermore, certified family law specialists must continue to prove their involvement in family law and their dedication to broadening their knowledge and experience. To keep their certification, specialists have to get recertified every five years, which involves continuing to go above and beyond the State Bar’s continuing education requirements; continuing to complete a variety of matters in the specialty area; maintaining references; and more.

Only attorneys who meet these stringent requirements are entitled to call themselves “certified specialists”.

Family law is considered by many to be the most personal, most emotional area of law. As such, family law cases tend to be complex, with high stakes for the parties. You should not just expect a family law attorney to be prepared to take on matters of a certain degree of difficulty not all attorneys are able to take on complex areas of a divorce and custody litigation.

Certified family law specialists are certified by the bar to take on complex areas of family law.

Moreover, certified family law specialists will bill at higher rates than family law attorneys.  This is not always the case, as some family law attorneys have extensive experience and have achieved seniority without additional certification, but it is important to keep in mind that certified family law specialists are considered experts in their field and have gone above and beyond to establish their careers in family law.

Consequently, if you’re seeking representation to guide you through an adoption, or a divorce involving minimal conflict over division of assets, a certified family law specialist would certainly be more than capable of assisting you, but so would a family law attorney billing at a lower rate.

However, if your family law case is unusually challenging – for example, cases with lengthy, litigious histories, or which involve complex financial disputes – you may need to seek out a certified family law specialist. No matter how complicated or emotionally charged your case may be, you can trust that a certified family law specialist has seen your type of case before and knows how to handle it.

A certified family law specialist didn’t take an exam fifteen years ago and forget about it; they are required to prove the strength of their knowledge and experience again and again over the course of their careers. They are consistently prepared to take on the most heated and complicated conflicts in family law, and have demonstrated genuine commitment to the practice of family law. 

As of 2021, Attorney Kathy Minella is one of 216 certified family law specialists in San Diego County, CA.


[this article has been updated for 2023]