“Collaborative Law” began in the late 1980’s when a divorce attorney from Minneapolis, Minnesota decided there had to be a better way for divorcing couples to end their marriages than by using the Courts. This attorney, Stuart “Stu” Webb, observed that while mediation was one option, and was often successful in avoiding litigation, the parties too frequently came to mediation unprepared or unrepresented by counsel, resulting in unfair outcomes. Stu realized that, when good family law attorneys got together with their clients in a spirit of settlement, there was frequently a great deal of positive, creative energy, and results could be tailored to the parties (and their children), as opposed to being scripted by the law or the Court. It occurred to him that this non-adversarial process most certainly resulted in better long term relations between the parties, better feelings about the final agreements reached, and a greater sense of satisfaction for everyone.
Stu Webb decided to formalize the process into what he called “the collaborative-law model.” The primary requirements of a collaborative case are that both parties, and their respective attorneys, sign an agreement at the beginning of the case stating that they will not go to court. These four individuals make a commitment to work out whatever problems come up, without the intervention or threat of “going to court.” This cornerstone of Collaborative Law remains today the most important aspect of any collaborative case.
As Collaborative Law grew and spread across the country, it became increasingly clear that attorneys were not necessarily the best qualified professionals to advise and assist their clients with all areas surrounding their financial situations or their relationships with their children. Stu’s model had always provided for the option of bringing in mental health, financial, or other experts as needed, as long as they were neutral and not “hired guns.” It became apparent to hundreds, if not thousands, of collaborative lawyers that the best way to serve our clients was to create an interdisciplinary team for each divorcing family.
In most, if not all, Collaborative Divorces, the team will consist of an attorney and a coach for each party, and a financial neutral. In cases involving children, there will also be a child specialist on the team. All of the professionals on the team are trained as Collaborative Professionals, in addition to their usual post-graduate and continuing educations.
The coaches are mental health professionals who help the parties and the rest of the team communicate effectively and calm the emotional seas, so that the couple can focus on their goals, move forward, and begin to focus on their respective futures. When there are children, the coaches will also work with the parents and the child specialist to create a parenting plan that works for everyone in the family. The coaches do not serve as therapists for the clients, though there is no doubt that having coaches on the team provides a tremendous emotional and psychological benefit to the parties at a time when it is most needed.
The financial neutral is a financial expert (usually a CPA, CFP, or CDFA) who will help the parties analyze the economic circumstances in the family and assist them in creating solutions to all of their financial issues (including support and division of assets and debt).
In cases with children, the child specialist will meet with the parents and the child or children. He or she will then meet with the parents and the coaches, together, to offer input for the final parenting plan. The child specialist is present to be the “voice of the child” at the table, since we do not want the children physically present for these discussions.
The legal process, by its very design, pits one side against another. The filing of a lawsuit, whether we like it or not, is a declaration of war. It destroys families and usually does lasting harm. Collaborative divorce uses a model of client-centered, cooperative negotiation to resolve conflicts. The goal of a collaborative divorce is to deliver each member of the family safely across the stormy sea of divorce to a place where each can begin, once again, to thrive.