Skip to main content

How is Collaborative Practice Different?

Yesterday I attended the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council's 2014 Advanced Training Forum.  The attendees included lawyers, coach/facilitators, mental health practitioners, financial neutrals and other professionals who help divorcing couples.  There were the usual discussions about finding better ways to help our clients divorce, about finding more clients, and about finding other professionals willing to practice collaboratively.  And there was also singing!

There was singing!

I'm breaking a vow we all took, just by telling you that there was singing.  But you need to know.  Because this is how Collaborative Practice is different:

Collaborative Practice has changed how I see conflict, and that has changed how my clients experience their divorce.

I spent the first five years of my career litigating divorce cases in court.  I started out idealistic, wanting to help every client reach their goals and find their peace after the divorce.  I asked them what their life looked like a year from now, five years from now, etc.  I wanted them to focus on the future.  But I started to burn out.  I thought it was because many of my clients were not able to reach their goals through the court process and that was frustrating.  Was I just not a good enough litigator?  If I was better, would my clients get more of what they wanted?  To be a litigator, did I just have to be less idealistic?  Or was there a better way?

For the five years that I only litigated, I worked with court staff and Judges that for the most part I liked.  I worked with opposing attorneys that for the most part I liked.  But only one became a friend.  Think about that for a moment.  If you work in a factory, or a shop, or an office, is it normal to work there for five years and meet only one person you can call a friend?

That disconnect can't all stem from the fact that we are in the business of arguing against each other.  Athletes in many sports physically attack each other, which seems more drastic than verbal argument, and yet they can still be friends after the game.  The problem is that in court, and especially in divorce court, this is not a game.  People's livelihood and their time with their children are at stake.  How do you become friends with the person who just took away your client's children?  I guess they were just doing their job?  I would have done the same thing in their position, right?  They're not my children.  To be a litigator and have friends, did I just have to be less idealistic?   Or was there a better way?

As a litigator, you have to advocate for your client's position and against the opposing party, and therefore against their advocate, but we also have to work together to settle cases.  This is a conflict that litigation teaches us to solve by threatening the risks of court and scaring people into settling rather than letting a judge, a stranger, decide their fate.  And if that doesn't work there is also the threat of the immense cost of a trial, which for middle and lower income families amounts to mutually assured destruction.  There has to be a better way than solving family disputes with the nuclear option.

That is why I gave Collaborative Practice a try.  I heard it was different.  I didn't believe it.  But it was only a two day training.  Why not give it a try?  Three years later I don't remember most of the details of my training.  I attend numerous CLEs (continuing legal education seminars) and even teach a few.  Most of them include a panel of lawyers and other professionals, and every time I learn one or two important tidbits that I can add to my practice, but I seldom learn anything life-altering.  I have the manual to reference if necessary, which is how I feel about most training.

The Collaborative training was different.  The one thing that still stands out for me from my Collaborative training is not some practice tip or tidbit I learned.  What still stands out is that the trainers genuinely seemed to be friends.  I left that training motivated to change my practice.  Honestly, it was not because I really understood how much better Collaborative Practice would be for my clients, but I saw how much better it could be for me.  I saw a glimpse of a world in which I could help my clients through their divorce, and still be who I was and who I wanted to be.  I didn't see at first that by changing myself I would also change my clients.

Collaborative Practice is different for me because I now get to work with people that I can be friends with, and who inspire each other to work harder, smarter and better.  As a Collaborative Divorce attorney, you still have to advocate for your client's position and sometimes that is against the opposing party's position.  But instead of seeing this problem as a conflict that requires threats to overcome,  Collaborative Practice teaches us how to transform that conflict in different ways.  That is not easy.  In fact in many ways it is easier to just try and beat each other in court.  Even with the risk as long as you win some, you've done your job.  At least the job as you've defined it.

Collaborative Practice is different for my clients because I now define my job differently.  If my divorce clients leave having no better idea how to deal with conflict than when they came into my office then I have failed.  Divorce is a by-product of conflict in the marriage, but if people are ending their marriage to escape that conflict, why do so many couples end up in long drawn out court fights for years, essentially continuing that conflict?  Because somewhere along the line the system failed them.

Collaborative Practice is different because we accept that the conflict is a part of life and we don't fight it.  Instead we use the energy of that conflict to help both sides understand their needs and wants better.  We even find ways to sing about it.  Collaborative Practice has changed how I see conflict, and that has changed how my clients experience their divorce, and therefore how they experience their life after divorce.

Collaborative Practice has changed how I handle all of my other cases too.  The theme of the MCLC Advanced Forum from yesterday was Mindfulness.  It is impossible to be more aware, more mindful of how you do something and not have that carry over into other parts of your life.  Collaborative Practice is not just different, it is better for everyone involved and it changes them.

If you're reading this and you have worked within the Collaborative community then you already understand what I am talking about.  If you're reading this and it is the first time you've heard about Collaborative Practice, you might be wondering what we're smoking.  I'm not asking you to buy into it right away.  Just give it a chance and maybe it will change you too.

Thank you to the great speakers from yesterday's program: Ronald D. Siegel for teaching us the importance of finding happiness and David Hoffman for teaching us how being more positive will change the people around us (and for leading the singing).

Thank you to Judy Ringer for her active program on transforming conflict (physically and verbally).

Thank you to Mary Sheridan and Carly Baker for leading a workshop with me on working with a new Collaborative Team.

Thank you to Michelle Raymond, Helena S. Friedman, Leila Wons, Maria Torella, Diane Pappas and all the other attendees at our workshop for sharing your experiences, your great insights and your excellent questions.

Thank you to the Advanced Training Committee at MCLC for organizing such a great event.

Thank you to Jeanne Cleary for introducing yourself at the end of the training and sharing your wonderful energy.

and finally Thank you to Rackham Karlsson for reminding me that I need to give Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. another chance.


  1. I think collaborative divorce is a good process as it is a collaboration of both the parties with no conflicts and no media and press involved and both spouses can take mutual decision and as they know much better than any Judge in this regard. Good option for an easy divorce.

  2. Justin, I have had similar observations about the collegiality of the Collaborative Law community. Everything changes when you stop thinking of each other as "opposing" counsel, but rather as colleagues working toward resolution of shared concerns, and aren't constantly looking over your shoulder. Thank you for your workshop on building a Collaborative Team; it was very instructive.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

New Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (2021): Big Changes, Little Changes, Typos & some Unexpected Results

UPDATE: The court has released a web calculating version of the 2021 MA Child Support Guidelines Worksheet .  It resolves some of the typos referred to below, but the unexpected calculations still apply. Every four years, per federal mandate, the Massachusetts Probate & Family Court revisits the Child Support Guidelines through the work of a Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice.  The 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines were recently posted.  They take effect on October 4, 2021.    If you are interested in a training on all of these changes to the new Child Support Guidelines: DMTA Presents the 2021 MA Child Support Guidelines Update  – Attend this event to learn the key updates you need to know for your mediation clients. Presented by Justin Kelsey of  Divorce Mediation Training Associates  and  Skylark Law & Mediation, PC . For a full comparison of all the  tracked changes between the 2018 and 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines you can download a pdf sho

What is the purpose of the Divorce Nisi waiting period?

In Massachusetts the statutory waiting period after a Judgment of Divorce and before the divorce becomes final (or absolute) is called the Nisi period. After a divorce case settles or goes to trial, a Judgment of Divorce Nisi will issue and it will become Absolute after a further ninety (90) days. This waiting period serves the purpose of allowing parties to change their mind before the divorce becomes final. If the Judgment of Divorce Nisi has issued but not become final yet, and you and your spouse decide you don't want to get divorced, then you can file a Motion to Dismiss and the Judgment will be undone. Although many of my clients who are getting divorced think the idea of getting back together with their ex sounds crazy, I have had cases where this happened. In addition to offering a grace period to change your mind, the Nisi period has three other legal effects: 1. The most obvious effect of the waiting period is that you cannot remarry during the Nisi period, be

Online Tool for Creating Parenting Plans

It is our hope that all families find a way to resolve conflict peacefully.  This is especially true when children are involved.  Divorced or separated parenting has many complications and the first is just deciding how to share time with a child from two separate households.  Developing a schedule can result in a lot of tension, especially if parents have trouble picturing how this new schedule will interact with their work schedules and the schedules of their children. To help make this easier, we've created an online tool for creating parenting plans that is simple and easy to use: We encourage parents, regardless of the process they are using to divorce, to use this form to assist in evaluating and settling custody disputes. The form allows you to choose between the Model Parenting Plan proposals or customize your parenting plan over a four week period by clicking directly on the form.  When you click on a section of the calendar it switches between Mom and Dad, an