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A Better Divorce

December 1, 2011

This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 ACFLS Newsletter.

            Most of the lawyers in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County maintain their offices in the Beach Cities or the Palos Verdes Peninsula and center their practices on the Torrance Courthouse.  It is a tight-knit legal community, and the family law bar is no exception.  (I always tell clients that, of the 50 local family law attorneys, I would be happy with any of 45 of them as opposing counsel.)

            It is a fairly affluent community.  Most of the family lawyers are sole practitioners drawn to middle class clients, but also drawn to the South Bay Bar’s long tradition of service to the community.

            About two and one half years ago, Kim Davidson, who has worked as both a family therapist and a family law attorney, came across an article about Collaborative Divorce.  She gathered together two other family law attorneys and two mental health professionals, and, as lawyers are wont to do, we had lunch.  That lunch changed our lives.

            We decided to form a group.  Like astronomers before Galileo, we assumed that the world of family law revolves around lawyers, so we invited primarily lawyers into our group.  We also had close ties with two forensic accountants, who eagerly joined our group.  We knew nothing about the nationwide Collaborative Divorce debate about whether groups should be open or closed, but instinctively felt that our group should initially be closed.  We also felt it should be small. The lawyers had to be experienced and reputable.  We settled upon ten attorneys, including ourselves, and thereby offended at least 35 good friends.  Our major criterion was that the attorneys be nice, non-controversial personalities, thus assuring ourselves of a group that gets along together.

            At least here in the South Bay, there was something about this Collaborative Divorce business that rang a bell.  Every single person we called was thrilled to be a part of it.

            It was at least a year before we got our first case.  We spent that year learning the process of Collaborative Divorce and investing endless hours in meetings discussing everything from the nuts and bolts of creating forms to the endless ethical and legal permutations of Collaborative Divorce.

            We also learned that there is a semantic distinction between Collaborative Law and Collaborative Divorce.  Generally speaking, Collaborative Law is limited to using lawyers, while Collaborative Divorce (a service-marked concept started up by Stu Webb in Minnesota and maintained by the terrific training provided through www.CollaborativeDivorce.com) is more of an interdisciplinary approach.  We chose Collaborative Divorce.

             So, using the same vague criterion of niceness, we selected a group of eight more mental health professionals to join our group, making the group ten lawyers, ten mental health professionals and two forensic accountants.

            We lost two or three of the mental health professionals for personal reasons, but the others heard the same call and joined right in.

            Integrating the lawyers with mental health professionals took several more months of thoughtful discussion.  But eventually we had 20 people with 20 points of view dancing angels on the head of a pin, and attendance started to slip.

           We applied the rules of collaboration to our own group and spent several meetings dealing with the simple problem of attendance.  The solution: we streamlined our meetings, created committees, created a mission statement and a set of goals with timelines, and we were off and running.  The result: we have had no attendance problems for over a year.  We have at the same time managed to preserve the Quaker model of consensus decision-making.  We have also added a few more members to the group, but only by consensus.

            It is too early to say whether this will remain a closed group or eventually become an open group.  There may not be much of a distinction: anyone who does the full Collaborative Divorce basic training and who brings a reasonably collaborative attitude to the divorce process is likely to be welcomed with open arms.  Our ultimate goal, after all, is hardly a modest one: we want to take over the family law world.  (Stu Webb tells the story of the town of Medicine Hat in Canada, where every lawyer went collaborative and the family law courts shut down.)

            Having integrated the mental health professionals into our process, early in our second year the ice broke, the penny dropped, our lawyer hearts melted, and the notion of creating a team that includes the divorcing couple, the children, a child custody specialist, our coaches, our lawyers, and our financial professionals simply clicked.  And just like that, cases started coming in the door.

            It is now a year later, and we have in the range of 20 Collaborative Divorce cases with Collaborative Divorce stipulations signed, some of them with full judgments completed.  The start of our caseload was a long time coming, but the growth is becoming exponential, as each of us, especially the lawyers, is learning how to present the Collaborative Divorce process to new clients in a persuasive way.

            We continue to meet monthly, and also have five or six committees which meet monthly.

            We primarily sell the process as individuals, and each professional in the group is separately and privately retained by the party or parties.  We do not advertise as a group, lest we violate any ethical standards against interdisciplinary law practice.

            We do offer a considerable education service.  We speak at least once a month at the Beach Cities Health District, a local community-based health organization, to prospective divorcees.  We have also spoken to countless service clubs and professional groups, including physicians and therapists, as well as lawyers and accountants.  We plan to make presentations before church groups.

            Training is of course a continuous function for a group like ours.  Most of our members have trained in Scottsdale through Collaborative Divorce.com, and our entire group attended a Chip Rose seminar in Los Angeles in January, which our group co-sponsored.  The Los Angeles Collaborative Family Law Association will be organizing Southern California trainings on a continuing basis.  Our own group will be doing in-house trainings, including formal collaborative divorce trainings and an upcoming weekend retreat.

            Thus far, our only absolute training requirement is the basic Collaborative Divorce two-day seminar.  However, most of our members have done extensive mediation training and attend continuing trainings as they become available.

            The International Association of Collaborative Professionals (www.collabgroup.com) meets annually (we Southern Californians want to be sure to have a presence at these meetings).  Last year the meeting was in Galveston.  The year before the meeting was held in Oakland.  It is interesting to see how the other 30 or 40 groups in attendance handle group formation questions, such as open versus closed, membership requirements, and training requirements.

            Having integrated both lawyers and mental health professionals into the group, we are now in the process of forming a pool of financial advisors to join our group.  Our two forensic accountants have been and will continue to be a great help, but the true collaborative divorce model incorporates financial advisors, and that’s going to be the next transformational process for us.

            We have found that working with professionals outside our group is always an option to consider.  The process goes very smoothly when clients retain two lawyers and related professionals from within our group, but we have also had success in bringing in outside counsel, even though not collaboratively trained, into the process.  We also look forward to integrating our services with other Collaborative Divorce groups when the parties are geographically distant from each other.

            For all of us, this group has become a second family.  By meeting continuously, studying continuously, and never varying from the consensus model, we have drawn closer and closer together and have learned to trust each other implicitly.  The benefit, as you can imagine, to our clients is immeasurable.  The benefit to ourselves: priceless.

            You can find us at our website www.abetterdivorce.com and can always leave a message for us at our voice mail phone number, 310-767-9808.

By James M. Hallett, J.D., CFLS, CCLS. is a proud member of A Better Divorce. Over 35 years of litigation in both criminal and family courts have convinced him that families are far better served by collaboration. He continues to do some litigation, believing (at least for now) that litigation skills and experience can enhance, rather than detract from, his collaborative practice.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 2:07 pm

    Collaborative divorce is a fantastic way of helping a couple to divorce amicably and whilst it is not always successful, it is still highly commendable. The less acrimonious the divorce, the less damage there is to both the spouses and their children.

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