Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Holiday Message: Mediation Style

Skylark Law & Mediation, P.C. and Think Pink Law wish health, happiness and peace for all of our clients, colleagues, mentors, followers, visitors, well-wishers and even our distant relations.

Our practices focus on solutions reached as often as possible through peaceful, rather than adversarial, processes.  Even when we expect to disagree, we try to begin all of our conversations recognizing the basic human dignity of the other involved parties.  Through that approach we hope to reduce the conflict in a world that is full of conflicts that seem unsolvable.

When that fails there will always be funny internet videos to cheer us up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Gotta Find My Purpose: An Update from Skylark and Think Pink Law

One of my favorite NSFW musicals is Avenue Q, where the main character (a puppet / liberal arts graduate), spends most of the story trying to find his purpose in life.  I think it strikes a chord with me because I am constantly re-examining whether my work reflects my values.  When Attorney Trask left Kelsey & Trask, P.C. last year, I was given an opportunity to reconsider how this firm reflected what I, personally, found most important.

Throughout the last year, that self-reflection has resulted in some changes that helped us focus more on our dispute resolution work and resulted in the creation of Skylark Law & Mediation, P.C. - where we help families resolve conflict.
That has become the central theme of our work and with that focus we have removed some practice areas and added others, and we have grown our staff to cover those new practice areas.

First, what have we removed?  Skylark Law & Mediation, P.C. will no longer be handling bankruptcy, criminal defense or firearms cases.  For bankruptcy we recommend The Law Offices of Lee Darst; for criminal defense we recommend Cappetta Law Offices; and for firearms related work we recommend Julie Tolek of Think Pink Law.  Julie recently became an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC, and will continue to run her own practice as well.

Julie has helped me and Skylark to focus on the areas where we can best help our clients.  To expand the ways in which we help families, we have officially added adoption, prenup/postnup work, and probate mediation as practice areas.  Skyark also continues to have the staff and experience to assist with divorce, mediation, collaborative law, appeals, QDRO preparation, Guardian Ad Litem appointments, conciliation, and consulting services for family law professionals.  Our consulting services range from litigation and mediation advice, to business and marketing advice.

In short, we've found our purpose.  For Julie, she will continue to represent both individual and business clients navigating second amendment compliance, and she will join in the efforts of Skylark Law & Mediation, where we now focus all of our energy on a single purpose: helping families resolve conflict.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What Divorcing Parents can Learn from #PorteOuverte

On Friday, November 13, 2015 terrorists attacked three locations in Paris, France, killing 129 people, in the most deadly attack on French soil since World War II.  I recently tried to explain to my 6 year old daughter what lessons we can learn from these attacks and from how the world reacted.  Through tears of my own, I explained to her that there are bad people in this world and there are good people.

I told her that unfortunately we can't tell who are the good people and who are the bad people just by looking at them.  But we can tell who are the good people and who are the bad people by what they do.  I explained that bad people had killed good and innocent people without reason because they are controlled by their fear and anger.

But more importantly, I explained how good people reacted.  Despite the natural inclination to protect oneself above all else, many Parisians opened their doors to strangers in the immediate wake of the attacks.  The trending message was called #PorteOuverte, french for Open Door. To open your doors when your city is under attack is an act of faith, not of religious faith, but of faith in human dignity; that despite these attacks the majority of people seeking refuge from the terror would be good people.

The #PorteOuverte movement is in stark contrast to the isolationist reaction of 53% of Americans and 31 U.S. Governors in the wake of these attacks.  It's not that I don't understand their reaction. I do.  I want to protect my daughter and my family from terrorists too.  But protecting her life is not the only thing I need to protect.  My job as a parent is to protect her dignity as well, and to make her a good person.  Good people don't shut their doors to those seeking refuge from terror, because they themselves are afraid.  Good people open their doors.

This is very similar to a lesson that I try to instill in my divorcing clients.  All divorcing spouses experience some form of grief over their divorce, and they all experience it differently.  Parents who divorce also experience a loss regarding their children.  Their children are losing an intact family, and each parent will lose some time with the children.  Separate households as a practical matter means less time with each parent individually.  People naturally grieve this loss and when they act on their fears or angers, without thinking first, their children are harmed.

This is highlighted in a typical example used in the Massachusetts Parent Education Course, which is required for divorcing parents.  The example asks how you should react if your child says to you "Mommy/Daddy said that you didn't pay your child support."  The natural reaction is to be angry that the other parent said this to the child, and to want to defend yourself, especially if this accusation is false or misleading.  Our desire to minimize the loss of our relationship with the child is to say "No, that's not true.  Your Mommy/Daddy is wrong."

But that natural reaction is actually damaging to the child, even if the answer is true, because now the child is in the middle of the argument.  In addition, if I react that way I have now demeaned the other parent in my effort to defend myself.  By defending myself I've hurt the child's own self-esteem because they identify with both parents.  To know the right thing to say I have to stop and think for a moment about what I am trying to accomplish.

The child doesn't need to know which parent is "right," they just need to know that both parents love them and they need to be shown how to resolve conflict in a calm effective manner.  An appropriate response for a young child might be "Thank you for letting me know that Mommy/Daddy said that.  I'll be sure to discuss it with her/him to clear that up."  For an older child who might have fears about money based on the comment you can still address those fears without putting them in the middle of the fight: "Thank you for letting me know that Mommy/Daddy said that.  I'll be sure to discuss it with her/him.  You don't need to worry about money, we'll clear it up. "

We all understand that a divorce is hard and it's natural to want to defend oneself, but we ask our clients to do better to protect their children.  To raise a child who understands and believes in basic human dignity, you have to demonstrate to them that every person deserves to be treated with a minimum amount of respect.  You have to help children understand that sometimes their first reaction, the emotional reaction to grief and fear and anger, should not control their actions.  The action we take in response to an attack or a loss should be informed by our values and our goals, not our fears.

I am hopeful that the initial reaction of some to the Paris attacks, the reaction of fear and anger, will eventually be replaced with a resolve to be better than the terrorists, to help those in need, and to control our fears so that they do not control our actions.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What Questions Should You Ask Before Hiring a Divorce Mediator?

There are numerous articles telling you what you should ask a divorce attorney before you hire them and we recently posted our advice on preparing for the attorney-client interview.   As mediators we encourage clients to work with attorneys to make sure that they are fully informed throughout the divorce process, but we also recommend, in most cases, that clients try mediation before having their attorneys negotiate or litigate on their behalf.

We recommend a mediation-first approach because of the many benefits of negotiating on your own behalf with the help of a skilled mediator.  Hiring a mediator, though, can be just as confusing and stressful as hiring a lawyer.  We're hoping this article helps make that process easier:

Finding the Right Mediator for You

Similar to hiring a lawyer you want to make sure that you ask questions about the mediator's practice, cost, and experience, to ensure that your mediator fits your financial circumstances.  Typically more experience means a higher rate and not every case requires the most experienced mediator.

It is also very important that any mediator that you work with is a good personal fit.  A good mediator helps you express your goals and positions in a way that the other side can actually hear.  This leads to better understanding and ultimately settlement, but it all starts with the mediator being able to effectively understand your goals.  If your mediator is not an effective listener and doesn't understand what is important to you then your mediation will likely fail.

First, you need to make sure you understand your own goals and can articulate them.  Ask yourself the following questions before you meet with a mediator:

  • What is the most important issue for you?
  • What do you need? 
  • What do you hope to accomplish in your case? 
  • What do you want your life to look like after your case is over? 
  • What do you want for yourself out of life?
  • What do you want for the other people involved in your case? 
  • If your case involves children, what do your children need and what do you want for your children? 
  • Why are you choosing to meet with a mediator (instead of or in addition to a counselor, coach, attorney or other divorce professional)?

Now that you understand your own goals and needs better, here are the questions that can help you discover if a mediator is right for you:

  • What training have you taken in the field of mediation?
  • If you also practice a different profession (attorney, counselor, etc.), how is your role different as a mediator than in that profession?  
  • What advantages and disadvantages are there to hiring an attorney-mediator vs. a mediator with a financial or mental health background?
  • What are the other options besides mediation for us to resolve our case?
  • What do you think is the most important aspect of mediation?
  • How do you help us meet our goals in mediation?
  • If we disagree with each other during the case about the best way to attain or prioritize our goals, how will you handle that disagreement?

These questions are not about testing the mediator's ability to think on their feet or their experience with your type of case.  Instead, these questions are designed to illicit answers that will help you know whether the mediator is a good fit for you.  After meeting with the mediator you should ask yourself the following questions to decide if you should hire them:

  • Do you need a mediator who can provide legal information or one who is more skilled at finances or communication dynamics?  
  • Does the potential mediator share your approach to problem solving and your style or will their style conflict with yours?  
  • Does the mediator's view of what is important in mediation match with your reasons for choosing mediation as an option?

Going through any type of family dispute can be extremely stressful, and you want to find professionals that reduce that stress by understanding you and your goals.  Click here to learn more about mediation.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Collaborative Law & Mediation: So Simple a 1st Grader can Do It!

Recently I attended my child's first grade open house.  Among the many details about policy, projects and pick-ups, the principal shared an interesting theme that they are working on this year.  He described the PAWS principle that they teach our children (aptly named for a school with a bear mascot).

PAWS stands for:

Practice empathy,
Act responsibly,
Work hard, and 
Solve problems together

These principles struck me because they are so basic that we often take them for granted.  In Collaborative Law and Mediation we live by the PAWS principles but often struggle to boil them down to so simple of a form.  If first graders can get it, though, we should be able to make it this easy for adults.

As one six year old recently tried to explain to her fighting parents: "Nobody gets along all the time. But disagreeing sometimes is one thing — treating each other poorly is another."  This viral video of a six year old explaining how to be nice to her parents is both adorable and full of wisdom:

If you are struggling with a family conflict (or know someone who is) consider how you can apply the principles we learn in first grade.  Practice empathy when considering what both sides have to offer each other and how each side may have unique goals and interests.  Act responsibly by doing the work you agree to do, and providing answers to each other's questions.  Work hard to solve hard problems, instead of looking for quick or easy solutions that might be detrimental in the long run.  And most importantly, solve problems together because conflict doesn't start with one person and it never ends with only one person's solution.

Taking positions in litigation or negotiation often fails to reduce conflict because the unilateral attempts to find a quick solution fail all of these tests.  It's so simple a first grader can do it.  Can you?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Today, I Didn't Win - A Collaborative Law Success Story

Everyday someone fails.  Sometimes marriages fail and sometimes parents fail.   Sometimes the courts fail families and sometimes lawyers do.  Sometimes mediation fails to help people reach agreements, and sometimes people fail to help themselves.

But sometimes, we also succeed.  There are success stories in family court, mediation and collaborative sessions that save relationships, and parents who overcome divorce to raise good confident children.  Today was one of those success stories and it's one worth sharing:

Today, I didn't fight for my client.  I didn't beat the opposing party.  I didn't solve the problem triumphantly by myself.

Today, I didn't win.

Instead, the opposing counsel, the collaborative coach and I did something together, as a team.  We helped two parents talk.  That might seem simple and easy, but for some parents, in some situations, it is not.  It took preparation and time, and some failures along the way.  It took a process designed to help and it took people willing to believe in the possibility of peace.

Today Collaborative Law resulted in a successful meeting, not just because of the process, but because of the people.  It's not over yet and we might still falter, but today it wasn't about winning, and so it also wasn't about losing.  Today it was just about being parents together, and listening to each other.

Today, we made a family stronger.

Tomorrow, we might fail again, but because of days like today I know that peace even in the face of terrible conflict is always possible.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

3 Amazing Facts about the DOR Child Support Enforcement Division

In Massachusetts the Department of Revenue Child Support Enforcement Division (DOR:CSE) provides child support collection services to both payors and recipients of child support.  Three attorneys from DOR:CSE recently spoke at a Boston Bar Association Family Law Section Brown Bag presentation and shared the following amazing facts:

In 2014 the Massachusetts DOR:CSE collected 
over $646 million dollars in child support.  

DOR:CSE can collect child support in any case where the child support figure is a sum certain and the recipient requests services.  They deduct support directly from the payor's paycheck which reduces the administrative burden of payment on both the payor and recipient.  They also track any arrears which can assist parties in keeping a clear record of child support owed.

Each case at DOR:CSE has an individually assigned case worker 
and each case worker has between 1200 and 1900 cases.  

DOR:CSE has a comprehensive website that can provide a lot of information generally about there services and specifically to a recipient or payor about their account.  They also have a customer service line (1-800-332-2733) that can answer many of the basic questions that you may have.  If you have a more complicated question about your case, you should contact your case worker directly.

Despite the number of cases, DOR:CSE case workers are 
required to respond to all inquiries within 72 hours.

Case workers can be extremely helpful in addressing any issues with your specific child support case.  DOR:CSE can assist with reviewing support orders for consistency with the current child support guidelines and help with asking the court to modify the amount of the child support if necessary.  The can also assist with collection and enforcement remedies, such as bank levies, tax refund intercepts and credit reporting, to collect overdue support.

Click here if you want more information about the services available from DOR:CSE (and the services that are NOT available).

If you have a DOR:CSE hearing and need further assistance click here for more information.

Finally, if you found this information helpful, check out this site for upcoming programs from the BBA Family Law Section, including our next program on October 6:  How to Effectively Utilize the Various Settlement Processes Offered by the Court.

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