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Finding the Right Lawyer: Collaborative Family Law

People seek out a lawyer because they have a problem they cannot solve by themselves. They rarely come looking for the “war of the roses" or the “cookie cutter divorce" – most often, they come wanting a settlement fair to all concerned, aided by an empathetic lawyer who understands the emotional interests that underlie the legal needs, and places both in their proper place. Folks needing to change their family structure may find the Collaborative Law method of dispute resolution right for them. In Collaborative Law, the lawyer see the nature of his or her clients dispute differently – not as a hired gun engaged to win at all costs, but rather as a steward working on behalf of a client for the benefit of a mutually agreed, durable settlement. Collaborative Law has three key elements that promote this:

· First, a commitment not to litigate but rather to sit down with lawyers to create a durable settlement.

· Second, a commitment to freely and voluntarily share all relevant information with their lawyers and each other.

· Third, a commitment to recognize each other’s shared goals and the interests of their children, and seek to create a durable agreement borne out of those shared goals.

Collaborative Law offers people the opportunity to engage in a settlement process where they are in the driver’s seat, ready and willing to take the steps necessary to transition themselves through their changing family structure while seeking the experienced guidance and negotiation skills of the collaboratively trained lawyer.

It’s a win-win for both client and lawyer. The client, engaged to act in his or her highest capacity, finds solace in the knowledge that they co-created a resolution for themselves and their changing family that promotes good will and future thinking. The lawyer, displaying the highest level problem-solving and peace-making techniques, finds comfort in the realization that their client has made it through the legal process associated with the change in their family structure looking towards the future, instead of being trapped in the past.

For a person exploring whether this route is right for them, getting proper guidance about the available process options is essential, and finding a lawyer with training in Collaborative Law to provide that guidance is an absolute must. Just as I would not look for a GP to reset a broken limb, someone exploring options for reaching settlement should not look for a lawyer who's toolbox is filled with traditional “win/lose" strategies that only involve interaction with court process.

To find lawyers trained in Collaborative Law, look for those who have attended at least 40 hours of mediation training, at least 40 hours of collaborative law training and who are associated with one of many local, state or national collaborative practice organizations. Cull those who make claims they are collaborative lawyers yet do not have such training.

Then pick up the phone. Get a flavor of how the lawyer communicates. Ask what their representation philosophy is. Explore their training and learn how many cases they have handled using the Collaborative Law model. Once you have settled on a lawyer or two you are comfortable with, schedule an office conference for a more in-depth interview. This first meeting should focus on a discussion of all your dispute resolution process options - from do-it-yourself through trial - so you can decide which option best meets your needs. A collaborative-trained lawyer is in the best position to offer this counsel and direct you to the resources that best meet your needs.

Additional resources provided by the author

Among the many publications offering an in-depth look at Collaborative Family Law are two terrific books I recommend: Collaborative Divorce, Pauline H. Tesler and Peggy Thompson, and; The Collaborative Way To Divorce, Stuart G. Webb and Ronald O. Ousky.

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