A  family lawyer takes the leap and starts training in Collaborative Law after 12 years of practising litigation. She reflects on this entirely different way of thinking and resolving family law matters.

By Betty Gabrielle, Family Lawyer

Collaborative DivorceI’ve been practicing family law the traditional way for close to 12 years now. I meet a client, discuss their relationship, separation, wishes, and provide them options on moving forward. Generally, the options I propose are court or out-of-court settlements (i.e., separation agreements, mediation, arbitration). Approximately 90% of clients begin the process by filing pleadings. 

During these discussions, our clients divulge intimate details regarding their relationship and the reasons for the breakdown of their marriage. I would argue that no other field of law has as intimate of a component; separation or divorce is one of the most difficult time in one’s life. Empathy is a must in our practice, and  after 12 years of practicing family law, this has become second nature.

Family law is difficult work, and where there are rarely any “winners.” Whoever does end up doing better in court has had to endure an emotional rollercoaster, and has often spent a small fortune. As we all know, a large percentage of our files settle; but generally it is not without bumps and hurdles along the way.

Taking the Leap

When I first started practicing, one of the partners in my firm steered his practice solely to Collaborative Law. My interest was somewhat piqued; however, I was too young in my career to pursue any other form of practice but for litigation. I felt that you needed to be in the trenches to understand the desire to avoid it altogether.

A decade later, my interest was piqued again. I was both intrigued and apprehensive: I did not want my clients to feel like they were capitulating. I was supposed to be their voice, their protector. How does one do that collaboratively?  Or more so: why do I need a course to do this? I can practice collaboratively. It’s easy, just be nice!

But because I was opining from a place of ignorance, I decided to take the leap and fly to Toronto, Ontario to attend an Introduction to Collaborative Practice course being taught by some of the top practitioners in the field. The opportunity was perfect, and after two full days of attending the introductory course, I drank the Collaborative Kool-Aid!

A Different Way to Practice

Alternative Dispute ResolutionCollaborative Practice is a completely different way of practising, and no one has to capitulate.  One of the first things you do need to change is the way you approach your client and the questions you ask –  which is challenging, as old lawerly habits are hard to break.You need to be careful with how you relay information to your client so as to avoid putting them in a positional mindset. And this begins in your initial interview.  Almost every time I meet a new client, they ask: “What amount of support will I receive?”, “Can I keep the home?”, “How long do I have to pay support?” If not careful with the answers we provide, we risk putting the clients in a further contentious position.

The Other Players

In Collaborative Practice, the use of financial neutrals and family professionals are commonplace – not a must. It all depends on the clients and their needs. However, the choreography of the professionals (lawyers, financial neutral, and family professional) is exquisitely executed. Each of them serve a unique function and their input in the process are like puzzle pieces.  

A financial neutral is a professional who assists both parties with their finances.The financial neutral prepares the statement of family property and debt and will highlight assets/debts that require further information. The financial neutral does not give advice, they educate and coach.  

A family professional is a mental health professional. They may work within the team or parallel to the team. A family professional has many functions, including parenting coach, child consultant/specialist, and/or a neutral facilitator.

The atmosphere is one of collegiality and respect. It is goal-oriented, and the goals are mutual:  to resolve the issues arising from the separation in a dignified manner with the parties retaining control of their respective lives and of their childrens’ lives. It’s a team effort. Sure, you may butt heads, but commitment and honesty are key.

As lawyers, we are trained to be cynics.  It is a must for our profession. In Collaborative Practice, you do not suspend your cynicism, you temper it.

What a client seeks is important – but why they are seeking it is even more important. This is interest-based.  In a nutshell, this is Collaborative Practice.

Betty is a family lawyer practising for over 12 years.  In November 2006, she joined Kahn Zack Ehrlich Lithwick LLP and became a partner in 2013. Betty’s practice covers a variety of family law matters including divorce, support, parenting time, and property division.  Betty commenced her training in Collaborative Practice and anticipates being a full member of the Collaborative Roster before the end of 2016. www.kzellaw.com

More from Family Lawyer Magazine

Collaborative Divorce from An Accountant’s and Lawyer’s Perspective