Logo of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML)

What is the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers?

This is not a perfunctory announcement of acceptance as an AAML fellow – but we are obviously proud to announce I made it! Instead, this is a description of the process which makes the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML for short) special. First, the AAML is not an easy organization to join. Even for someone with 20 years of family law experience, it was a grueling experience – see the details below.

Any lawyer can join the local bar association, so while membership has its advantages for networking and events (and I’m speaking as a former officer of the El Paso County Bar Association), from a selection criteria perspective, membership simply means that the attorney has a license to practice law (is in “good standing” with the state bar).

Moreover, there are a host of “vanity” websites and awards with prestigious-sounding family law names whose only requirement for joining is paying a few hundred dollars for a plaque on the wall. We have written more in-depth on those vanity award schemes, where even domestic animals have been honored as supposed top attorneys.

By contrast, for a family lawyer, being admitted as a fellow in the AAML is “the show” – it’s akin to a high school student making the varsity team and honor roll. The Academy means something in part because it is elite, and difficult to join.

“Promoting professionalism and excellence in the practice of family law”

The purpose of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is spelled out in large print on the front page of their website. And they mean it.

The AAML shows its dedication to family law week after week, by teaching fellow attorneys and judges at CLEs, by publishing a scholarly journal with in-depth analysis of family law issues, monthly chapter meetings, semi-annual nationwide meetings, and in-between just being a resource for complex issues when you can’t find the answer anywhere else.

Professionalism is the mission. The Academy promulgates a 67-page Bounds of Advocacy, setting forth the high standards of professionalism and excellence required of its members. The Colorado State Bar has Model Rules of Professional Conduct – these are merely a subset of the AAML’s Bounds of Advocacy, which impose far higher expectations on its members than on the bar at large.

Colorado Chapter of the AAML

AAML Colorado Chapter

The AAML is different. It’s prestigious – of course, having just been accepted as a Fellow in the Academy, I am far from a neutral observer. But if you consider the maxim “you’re known by the company you keep” the Colorado Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is undeniably top-notch company:

  • The chapter president is retired district court judge Angela Arkin, widely acknowledged to be the family law guru in Colorado both while she was on the bench, and since her retirement.
  • The chapter has only 24 members, out of probably over 1000 law attorneys in Colorado – in other words, maybe only 2% of domestic relations lawyers attain membership. And all are top-notch family law attorneys with major recognitions behind them – Colorado Super Lawyers, U.S. News & World Report Best Lawyers, etc. They have been leaders in the bar for years, and are looked up to in the Colorado family law world.
  • The other Colorado Springs member is Dave Johnson, perhaps the finest family law attorney I know. Dave has been bar president, a magistrate, won more awards, taught more CLEs, and volunteers more time to the community than any other attorney around. And before Dave switched from litigation to mediation, he was always a formidable competitor when on the other side of a case.
  • CLEs (continuing legal education courses) put on by the Colorado Chapter of the AAML are highly-anticipated events on the family law calendar, and popular with both attorneys and judges alike.

How Hard Is It to Join the AAML?

The AAML application process is an ordeal exhaustive process. It takes months, and dozens of hours between filling out forms, the interview, and studying for the exam just to apply to join the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers – and at every stage of the way, an applicant who does not meet AAML standards faces potential rejection.

AAML Standards of Admission

Per the Academy website, all fellows must meet the following standards:

  • Experienced. Minimum 10 years practice
  • Family Law Specialist. A minimum of 75% of the last 5 years must be family law exclusively
  • Family Law Education. Minimum of 12 hours/yr of family law CLEs (admittedly, this is not a tough standard – the good family law attorneys I know are regular participants at the same conferences I attend, and that’s a lot more hours than this).
  • Involvement in Family Law, such as being on the faculty of family law CLEs, holding family law leadership positions in bar associations, publishing articles, serving as judge/magistrate, etc.
  • Complex Trial Experience. Must have been lead counsel in complex family law matters.
  • Bounds of Advocacy. Must know them, and aspire to practice them.
  • Professional Reputation. More on this below.
  • Take the National Exam. More on this below.
  • Pass the Chapter Interview. More on this below.

AAML Application Form

Frankly, the application form was laborious enough that it alone caused me to delay applying to become a fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers for at least a few years. Even though the Academy is undeniably a worthy organization, the application form alone takes hours to complete, and requires amassing all kinds of details about my cases (nothing confidential!) and professional background. In the end, the application form was 14 pages long, including single-spaced appendices.

I was not concerned about the paperwork part of the admission process – at the risk of being immodest, my legal experience and background satisfy the AAML’s professional experience requirements, having taught at 30 CLEs, held bar leadership positions, won awards, etc. But knowing you ought to qualify, and actually going through the process of proving it, are not the same.

Professional References to Prove Legal Reputation

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers requires references. Not your buddy down the hall, but the attorneys must themselves be reputable, and not connected to you. And they also require judicial references – real judges who have actually seen you in action on family law cases.

The references are anonymous – this is apparently pretty important, as I understand from talking to current AAML members that some applicants have been denied membership in the past who otherwise seemed qualified, solely because their references had less-than-flattering things to say about them.

Moreover, in addition to providing professional references, the application form requires providing the names and contact information of different lawyers you’ve gone against in the past couple of years. I still don’t know whether the AAML actually contacts them – I’ll probably ask at one of the meetings. But the group is thorough enough that it would not surprise me – organizations don’t often ask for such information without an actual purpose in mind.

Colorado AAML Chapter Interview

Thanks to Covid-19 and Governor Polis’s Stay-at-Home order, the interview was conducted via Zoom instead of live. It was moderated by Judge Arkin, the chapter president, and had several AAML members participating. As I was waiting for the video conference to start, it struck me that it was the first time I’ve had to be interviewed since 1991, when I applied to join the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

I’ve participated in several interviews since becoming a lawyer, but always on the other side of the table – interviewing attorneys applying to join Graham.Law.

The interview went well, both from the computer/zoom perspective, and I apparently didn’t say anything too bad! Only one last step to join the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers…

The AAML National Exam

I have to confess that I somewhat delayed studying for the exam. I’ve always taken tests well, and my grades in law school and college were excellent. So how hard could a family law test be for someone who has already been practicing family law in Colorado for 20 years? I reviewed the AAML Bounds of Advocacy, and figured I’d set aside the weekend before the exam to brush upon some of the more obscure areas of family law.

I soon came to realize that would be nowhere near sufficient. I spoke to a few current fellows in the AAML, and the more I learned about the test, the more I realized I had to treat it much more seriously – almost as if I were taking the bar exam again.

The AAML expects that family law attorneys already know family law – how else we would not have come as far as we have? But they’re looking for more than that – the exam topics were not your everyday divorce issues, but included both the Bounds of Advocacy and a host of collateral areas we need to know – custody evaluation standards, business appraisals, bankruptcy, social security, and other areas outside of family law but tangentially related to it.

And the family law questions they did ask were in-depth – not basic issues we see everyday, but questions which required attorneys to really dig deep to answer. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of family law already, but the test was humbling. Even with issues I deal with regularly, the test had a few curve balls, and required a deeper understanding than most of my clients’ cases.

So on June 6, 2020, I showed up at Dave Johnson’s office (he was my proctor!) to take my first serious test since the California Bar exam in 1991. It was 150 minutes of pretty tough questions – I should have noted how many. but there were a bunch of multiple choice questions. Like other national tests, the exam was sealed until the official start time, and upon completion, had to be double-sealed and sent off to the AAML for grading.

Why Join the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers?

I’d already felt a connection to the AAML, having taught at a couple of their CLEs over the years (including one just last fall to the Colorado judiciary – see blog post). And as mentioned, I have wanted to join for years, but the arduous application process created significant inertia on my part.

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

Groucho Marx.

In the end, the AAML’s difficult application process ended up being part of the reason I did apply. If it were easy to join, AAML membership wouldn’t mean as much, and certainly would not warrant a blog post announcing my membership. But because it is challenging to join, there’s a strong element of seeing if I’m good enough to belong to the nation’s most prestigious family law organization. And, of course, sharing this boast with the outside world.

And then there are more pragmatic reasons to join the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers: having the top family law attorneys in the state as go-to resources, attending CLEs and meetings with those same attorneys, reading the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers to keep pushing my legal knowledge, and yes, even networking and referrals from other AAML fellows (probably the least significant reason, as I don’t really know what to expect on that front).

Finally, there’s also giving back to the legal community – after 28 years of practicing law, I believe I have something to contribute beyond teaching at CLEs, and being part of an organization which gives so much back to Colorado’s family law community is important.

So while it would be an exaggeration to say I’d happily do it all over again (at least in this lifetime), now that it’s behind me, I can say the challenge was worthwhile. Here’s a link to my AAML profile.

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