How to Succeed as a New Guardian ad Litem

Post authored by Teresa Detloff

Prior to transitioning to medical malpractice defense work, I spent a year practicing family law. I am so grateful for the experience working in family law because I got the opportunity to be appointed as a guardian ad litem in a handful of cases.

A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a court-appointed neutral third-party that in the family law context is utilized to help the parties in litigation resolve parenting time and decision-making disputes. A GAL typically conducts an investigation by interviewing the parties to litigation and the children, and possibly doing home visits if the circumstances require it. Then, the GAL will issue his or her recommendations as to what solution is best regarding parenting time and the allocation of parental responsibilities. Below are a few lessons I learned from my work as a GAL.

You will likely get asked whether you’re married and have children. If you don’t, the parties may question your ability to help them reach a solution. At the outset, remind the family that you are assisting that you are there to resolve conflict. The judge appoints you as a GAL not because you are an expert in marriage and/or parenting, but because you have the unique ability and training to resolve conflict.

Make sure to take detailed notes when you are doing home visits and interviews of the parents and children. Many times, the judge will want to host a pre-trial conference and will ask you to explain your recommendations. Be prepared to back up your recommendations with specific reasons as to why what you have proposed is the best plan for the family you are serving.

Once you make your recommendations, stand your ground. Sometimes, the attorneys for the parties will call you after you issue your recommendations regarding parenting time and the allocation of parental responsibilities to persuade you to alter your recommendations in a way that is more favorable to their client. The attorneys advocate on behalf of their client, but as a GAL, you are a neutral party who has conducted an investigation as to what arrangement is best for the family. Therefore, you have a perspective that no other party to the case has.

Quite often, the parties will have unrealistic expectations for what will work, and you have to deliver the bad news. For example, you may have parents that want to split parenting time 50-50, but both parents work full-time and live a three-hour drive from one another. Be honest and upfront with respect to the parties’ expectations so that there are no surprises down the road.

You are going to have to get creative. No family is the same, and the GAL recommendations for one family will differ wildly from the next, even if the circumstances appear to be similar. Try to think outside the box to find ways to satisfy each of the parent’s concerns so that everyone can walk away comfortable with the final result. That being said, not everyone is going to be happy with what you’ve recommended.

GAL work is rewarding. As a GAL, you are in a unique position to observe the situation objectively, and to come up with a solution to the conflict by investigating the full picture in a way that the attorneys for the parties cannot. While GAL work is typically performed pro bono or for reduced fees, GAL work is an excellent opportunity to use your skills as an attorney to give back to the community.

About the Author:

Teresa Detloff

Teresa is an associate at Brennan Burtker LLC, focusing her practice on medical malpractice defense. Teresa is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she served as a lead article editor for the law journal. Teresa currently serves as a member of the advocacy committee for the United Nations Association Chicago chapter.

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