Last month I had the great honor to work with a couple who decided to use collaborative law to help them file and finalize their divorce. In the very first collaborative case in West Virginia involving attorneys trained by IACP and members of a collaborative practice group. Yes, the first one! And a mere two weeks later, the second case made its way through the courts.
Now that my efforts to bring collaborative law to the Mountain State have finally succeeded, I've taken a step back and have a few reflections on this unique process.
First of all, I can't tell you what a superior product these two consumers purchased! They had two lawyers who wanted to be sure that they worked together, with a financial neutral, to keep every bit of their assets free from taxes. The entire team worked to maximize the marital estate. In other words, the lawyers were more concerned about increasing the combined wealth of the parties then maximizing one parties' share. That's a big deal. The old saying, two heads are better than one--in the case of collaborative divorce, two attorneys are better than one when both work to concurrently represent their client while maximizing the benefit to the parties!
The next big difference that I noticed between this couple and parties I've represented in litigation is this: no one started smoking, or lost twenty pounds. Often when someone tells me that they are "going through a divorce", they look different. Their mental and physical health is obviously affected. In both of the collaborative matters that we worked on, the parties struggled with decisions and grieved the loss of their marriage. But the difference is that with the collaborative divorce they addressed the sadness and grief in more direct and less destructive ways.
After the second hearing, the judge pulled me aside and asked me why I was making such a big deal about "collaborative divorce." What was the difference between collaborative law and negotiating a resolution in a divorce case after it is filed and served? I'm glad he asked me this question! Clients have reported to me that lawyers have told them they "do collaborative law." But there are only four attorneys in the state of West Virginia who have the additional training to be certified in collaborative law by IACP. Those who are not certified do not understand the very different process that collaborative law brings. Here are the two BIG differences.
1: With a collaborative law process, everything in the collaborative session is open, transparent and confidential. The process is so respectful of the ability of everyone at the table to be open that if for any reason the parties are not able to reach an agreement, they will need to get new lawyers who have not been part of these private, confidential meetings. When you are a party sitting at the table and sharing valuable, maybe emotional reasons that you are making a decision, you don't have to worry that anyone at the table will be cross-examining you in the future.
2: No secrets. Everything in the collaborative process is transparent and open. You don't have to worry about someone hiding assets, or telling lies about the kids. At the outset, everyone promises to be open and transparent and not to conceal important information. In collaborative law, we hold this so important that when we meet, you will hear not only the advice that your attorney is giving you, but also the advice your attorney gives your spouse. I find that particularly helpful so that if I disagree with another attorney's read on the law, we can talk it out, right in front of the clients so that everyone has the same information.
What do these differences mean? It means that everyone is on the same page and has agreed that the best people to make the decisions about their children are the parents, not the judge. And the best folks to figure out how to maximize the family assets are the parties, with their financial advisor, not the judge. The collaborative parties by-pass many adversarial and agonizing experiences such as having documents served by the sheriff or hanging out in the courthouse, waiting for hearings to start, waiting to see what will happen next. In my next post, I'll focus a little more on the feedback the couples gave us following the first collaborative divorce in the Mountain State!