Collaborative Practice offers the promise of peaceful negotiation with maximum professional support.
I have been involved in matrimonial law most of my career. I have seen some pretty awful stuff. People come to my office at the worst time of their lives: a family in pain; lovers betrayed. As the family is the very heart of our existence and interaction as men and women, the demise of a marriage thrusts real, honest people into some of the deepest and most exquisite pain we humans are capable of experiencing. Divorce professionals, for better or for worse, are given a front row seat to such sorrow and tragedy. We go through a lot of tissue. I have seen a coffee cup thrown across a room. I have seen strong, grown men cry. I have seen suicide attempts and suicide successes.
I have seen the serious collateral damage that a divorce war can inflict on the most innocent – children. I witnessed a divorce so terrible in its conflict that the children of the marriage were literally destroyed with depression, anxiety, drug addiction and self-mutilation that so often accompanies children of divorce.
Early in my career, I enjoyed the thrill of a battle in court. Litigation can be intoxicating for an attorney. I experienced the adrenaline rush of a nasty phone call to an opposing counsel, the delivery of a strongly worded letter on attorneys’ stationary and the excitement of combat in the court room. It is easy to allow oneself to get caught up in the warfare and become a part of the problem rather than a guide to a solution. In law school we are taught to be “zealous advocates” for our clients. The problem, however, is that in our zeal, we often overlook and destroy our client’s most important asset – the family relationships. Furthermore, “zeal” with its weaponry of formal discovery, motions, court work and general nastiness can deplete the family finances in such an extreme way that our clients are left bankrupt. Sometimes I feel like some attorneys are more zealous advocates of collecting more fees than they are of doing what is best for the client. It is actually called the “adversarial process” in that parties are purposely pitted against one another. Surely, encouraging couples to be adversarial rather than constructive and mutual when discussing delicate issues like parenting is terrible for a family. Don’t get me wrong, some cases require a court battle. However, the vast majority do not.
I have since recovered from the mindset that everything must be scorched earth. Towards the beginning of my career I did mediation, which was a great way to keep folks out of court and focus on solutions. The limitations of mediation, however, are that the parties don’t often have the support of advising attorneys in the room. As a neutral mediator, I am unable to advise what is in a party’s best interests. I can’t protect the interests of my clients. I always recommend that clients seek independent legal advice, but it is hard sometimes, if the attorney is not in the room. On the other side of the same coin, some advising attorneys misunderstand their role and drive what could otherwise be a simple mediated case into litigation.
In Collaborative Practice, however, the parties and their attorneys jointly sign an agreement that they will not be going to court. The agreement further stipulates that should either party choose to litigate, both attorneys are disqualified from participating. This frees the attorney from having to posture with every meeting. If the attorneys are not constantly concerned that they will have to litigate every issue, they are freed to focus on solutions rather than looking for more conflict. The attorneys’ roles switch from zealous advocates to “legal educators” and “counselors at law”. The power shifts away from the attorneys to the parties. The parties decide what the agreement will be and the attorneys merely provide advice regarding the law.
Additionally, the parties can bring in additional professionals to work on their Collaborative Practice team. Mental health professionals can be utilized as divorce coaches or child specialists to assist with the hugely emotional issues in every divorce case. A neutral financial professional can be brought in to assist the parties with understanding the money issues and for planning for the future. As an attorney, I am then relieved of the burden of having to act (incompetently) as an emotional support, child custody expert or as a financial guide. Often these additional professionals will have a lower billing rate than the attorneys so tremendous economies of scale can be achieved. You pay money to the people most qualified to give the particular service.
I enjoy Collaborative Practice as a human being as well. It is wonderful to work with a couple to transition their family in the least destructive manner possible. I love collaborating with professionals from other disciplines to help the family find the very best solutions for their situation. Collaborative Practice is much more mutually respectful, civil, child-centered and humane than traditional litigation. Although divorce is always painful no matter which model of dispute resolution is used, couples can leave the collaborative divorce process feeling good about their futures and knowing that they found constructive solutions for their families.
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