GRB Law Article

Something Old, Something New: Collaborative Law; an old problem finds a new solution

By: Lea E. Anderson
Date: July 7, 2008

Author Spotlight

headshot of Lea Anderson, author of Something Borrowed, Something Blue Since 2007, Lea has concentrated her family law practice in the methods of out-of-court alternative dispute resolution, which include mediation and collaborative law. Each process reaches resolution by settlement customized to address the needs of each separate case. Collaborative law focuses the parties on maintaining healthy relationships with children and extended family during and after the divorce. About Lea

“…For better, For worse, For richer, For poorer – Till death do we part...”  Chances are, if you have been a bride or groom, you have earnestly recited these familiar words as part of your wedding vows.
Fast forward this picture to a later date when the loving couple joins the ranks of over 50% of married couples and becomes an ex-couple.  Are they filled with bitterness and disillusionment or are they conciliatory and cooperative toward each other?  Chances are, if the process of dissolving the marriage included litigation, they are indeed bitter and angry, and they may also be worse and poorer.  
Collaborative Divorce is an alternative to litigation for resolving martial disputes and is gaining popularity in this area.  Unique features of the collaborative process include the fact that the parties’ retain control of the process and the order in which the issues are addressed.  Each party retains a collaboratively trained attorney.  Information and documents are freely exchanged between the parties and between counsel.  Initially, each party discusses and develops both short-term and long-term personal goals.  The goals focus the parties and in turn, the discussions, on the future and the movement each needs to make to achieve the goals.  Instead of presenting evidence to a judge for an afternoon or a day and receiving a decision, which may or may not address all the important issues, the parties control the process.  They and their counsel, through a series of four-way meetings, address, discuss, consider alternatives and resolve issues by reaching agreements that are “acceptable”.  
Agreements reached in the collaborative process often extend beyond the legal issues that define a court’s jurisdictional and practical bounds.  For example, issues such as college expenses, religious training and support/alimony based on needs, rather than state-imposed guidelines, can form the basis of collaboratively reached agreements.  Also flexible custody arrangements addressing the specific needs of the children and parents are possible.  The parties will not feel bound to a rigid court imposed schedule.
The parties and counsel work out a schedule of convenient meeting times.  Each meeting starts on time and the parties’ pre-established agenda governs the issues to be addressed.  Because the parties have agreed upon the agenda and separately met with their collaborative attorney prior to the four-way meeting, generally, the four-way presents no surprises but, instead, concentrates on brainstorming of alternatives, weighing each party’s needs and desires and crafting a custom fitted resolution acceptable to both parties. 
The collaborative process encourages the parties to work with just one counselor/child psychologist to help with the “family’s “ parenting issues, and just one financial planner to help develop workable and realistic budgets, and just one appraiser to value property or a business.  In contrast, in litigation each party may separately employ a counselor, and a financial planner and an appraiser.  It’s not hard to see how the court process can become very expensive and combative.  
The tenets supporting the collaborative process are embodied in a Participation Agreement which the parties and their attorneys all sign at the outset.  In the Participation Agreement, the parties agree to resolve the problems through a series of four-way meetings and agree not to submit any issue to a court.  The attorneys agree to represent each party, respectively, in the collaborative process and to withdraw should litigation be initiated.  In other words, commitment to the collaborative process is so paramount that new counsel must be hired for litigation purposes.  
Several dozen collaborative cases are in process or have finished successfully in Allegheny County.  The collaborative approach has proven to be especially productive in divorces where parents place a priority on maintaining good relationships and on cooperative co-parenting of children.
The collaborative approach has proven to be especially productive in divorces where parents place a priority on maintaining good relationships and on cooperative co-parenting of children.
- Lea Anderson

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