A New Vision for Divorce - Collaborative Law

Families going through the trials and transitions of a divorce often have this process complicated by the adversarial legal system. Many of our efforts as mental health professionals to help these parents and children are frustrated by the tactics of divorce attorneys and delays by the courts. For the past twenty years I have used my skills as a therapist, mediator, parenting coordinator and lecturer to help mothers and fathers and their children adjust to the changes a divorce brings. My job has not been made any easier by a legal system that enables revenge, acting out and chaos more than problem solving and the long-term best interests of everyone involved.

Last May I signed up for a comprehensive training in Interdisciplinary Collaborative Family Law which was sponsored by the newly formed Collaborative Law Institute of Michigan. I didn't have much of clue of what collaborative law meant, but I really liked that word "collaborative." If there was a new approach that could eliminate some of the insanity of an adversarial divorce, I was definitely up for that!

Simply put, collaborative law uses cooperative methods rather than adversarial techniques and litigation to resolve the issues of divorce. The attorneys and their clients enter into a contract agreeing to use these collaborative approaches to find a mutually agreeable divorce settlement. To ensure that all parties maintain the collaborative approach, if one or both clients decide to use the adversarial system, both attorneys are disqualified from further representation and are required to withdraw from the case.

In the interdisciplinary model of collaborative law, a team of professionals from complimentary disciplines, are called in to maximize effectiveness and successful resolution of the issues. Mental health professionals and financial experts (certified public accountants, financial planners) are used to help resolve the divorce in a fair and equitable manner. Mental health professionals are brought onto the collaborative team to provide two separate services: Divorce Coach and Child Specialist.

As a divorce coach, the mental health professional assists the individual parties in achieving the goal of a collaborative divorce. The role involves keeping the clients on the collaborative path by helping them make realistic goals and giving them the required skills to achieve their goals. This is not a therapeutic relationship (therapist as healer) but a coaching relationship designed to help the clients improve their learning and performance to complete the task of formulating a mutually satisfying divorce.

The child specialist's role in collaborative law is to assist parents and their children through direction, education and advice in developing a parenting plan. The child specialist acts as a neutral to help the parents and the collaborative team by providing information about the children's needs and the effects of divorce upon each child. The child specialist is prepared to address and provide information about physical custody, time sharing plans, developmental stages and expectations for each child, holiday schedules, phone access, etc. This role also involves helping the parents to form a co-parenting agreement that will reflect the best interest of their children.

For most of us this involves a paradigm shift from the role of therapist to coach. Rather than working with the client and their issues and past antecedents, the mental health professional works as a coach and team member, focusing on the here and now to accomplish the tasks of a collaborative divorce.

In theory, this is a phenomenally sane and practical approach to divorce. In practice, we still have to educate attorneys, judges, counselors and their clients of the benefits of ending a marriage in this manner. Instead of divided factions pitting one party against the other, the team comes together to give the divorcing couple everything they need: legal representation and advocacy by their own attorney, and support and information to the clients and the entire team from neutral and experienced mental health and financial professionals. I wrote this article to educate you, the social worker out in the field seeing these families. It is my hope that you can let clients who are divorcing know that there are options to the adversarial system and collaborative law teams are one of those options. Furthermore, you might think, as I did, that this might be a very good way to contribute your skills to helping divorcing families in an effective and unique manner.

Janice Tracht, MSW, ACSW, BCD (Child Specialist)