Fifteen years ago this month, I participated in the first-ever collaborative law training in Texas, at a time in which few people knew what collaborative law was. Since then, a large number of couples in Texas, across the nation, and throughout the world have used collaborative law as a means – a much better means than what’s available in a courtroom, in my opinion – to arrive at a divorce settlement.
For couples willing to go through the collaborative process, there are numerous advantages that come with going down that path. Negotiations can stay private, they can happen on a couple’s schedule, and they afford an autonomy and flexibility that just isn’t available in the courts.
If a couple could choose between deciding their own future through negotiation and the assistance of lawyers committed to finding a mutually-agreed-upon solution, versus fighting for an undetermined amount of time in a public proceeding decided by a judge that doesn’t know them beyond their lawyers’ arguments, I believe most couples would choose the first option.
And yet, fifteen years after I first learned the advantages of collaborative law, I don’t see as many couples choosing a collaborative divorce as I’d predicted when I incorporated it into my practice. In fact, I’ve had discussions with colleagues lately who are concerned collaborative law will never really be a more significant portion of divorce dispute resolution.
I know that there are some family lawyers out there who don’t understand collaborative law, some who don’t like it, and some who fear it. Because lawyers do a lot to shape the public perception of divorce, and because a great number of them are reluctant to abandon the litigation approach they’ve trained in and practiced, people aren’t as aware of collaborative law as they should be. I think this is the most significant reason that collaborative law has not become the primary method of divorce dispute resolution.
One thing that makes me hopeful for the future of collaborative law is what’s happening in law schools. Law schools are teaching about collaborative law in their alternate dispute resolution clauses, and some are teaching as a separate curriculum. Many of the law student/future family lawyers I’ve met in recent years are intrigued by what collaborative law offers clients and are eager to incorporate it into their practices. And their peers, who will be referring family law clients to them in the future, will be familiar with the process. Also, many of my colleagues are active in the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas, a non-profit organization that is working hard to educate people about the advantages of collaborative law, as well as other organizations with similar goals.
Even though it’s hard for many people to talk about their divorce experiences, it’s my hope that people who’ve gone through the collaborative process will talk about their positive experiences, and help shape public perception about divorce. I know from my personal experience – be it with high-net-worth clients who want innovative and individualized plans to allocate assets or cost-conscious clients who want to avoid racking up court costs – that collaborative law holds many advantages over litigation.