Sunday, August 19, 2007

An Overview of Texas Collaborative Law

Collaborative Law is a dispute resolution system that permits the parties to a divorce or family law issue to settle out of court in a respectful, private and mutually agreeable manner. The parties each have their own attorneys, but they agree at the outset to not go to court. Instead, they set goals, gather information, create solutions and reach agreements in a series of relatively short meetings which they schedule themselves. They control the timing, the subjects and, most importantly, the solutions. Courts are used to formalize the agreements once the parties have worked things out.

One of the reasons why Collaborative Law works is that once the Collaborative participation agreement is signed by the parties and their attorneys, the attorneys are required to withdraw from representing their clients if the process fails to reach an agreement and someone wants to go to court. Those attorneys cannot represent those clients in a contested matter in court. That creates a huge incentive for both attorneys and clients to stay with the process and look for other solutions when the going gets a little tough. In a regular litigation case, the easy cop-out is for one or both parties to tell the other party that they will just let the judge decide if the other party won’t agree to an offer. That can’t be done without costing both parties a lot of money and without the attorneys losing business. Everyone loses by that alternative, so everyone generally keeps trying to find an acceptable solution.

Early statistical reports are indicating that at least about 93 to 95% of Collaborative cases reach agreement. That is comparable to the success rate of a good mediator in Texas who usually comes into the process after both sides have already beaten each other up (figuratively), gotten ready for trial and spent a lot of money.

Collaborative Law won’t work for everyone. It will work in cases involving affairs, custody disputes, gay or lesbian issues, prenuptial or partition agreements, division of complex property, high income families, one parent who hasn’t worked outside the home for years, special needs children and other parenting issues, among other things. It may not work if one or both parties have unreasonable expectations, some mental illness, some substance abuse, some situations of domestic violence and some other situations. In general, Collaborative Law is appropriate for most family law matters, especially where there is value in maintaining good family relationships, such as when children are involved.

This blog is set up to provide information about the Texas approach to Collaborative Law. Since 2000, when Collaborative Law was introduced in Texas, the process has evolved quite a bit in Texas and elsewhere. We have moved from having "4-Way Meetings" with just the two attorneys and the two parties, to have "Joint Meetings" with the two parties and their attorneys, sometimes joined by a mental health professional and/or a financial professional and/or a child specialist and/or another neutral specialist. Sometimes the parties work on parts of the process with just a neutral specialist and then go back to the attorneys to review what has been covered. Sometimes the parties will work with a life coach to help them get through the process.

Collaborative Law in Texas has become an opportunity to customize an approach to help the parties to a divorce or other family law matter deal most effectively with their unique facts, needs and opportunities in a private, respectful and dignified manner. The process uses a problem-solving model that is easy to understand and produces creative, appropriate and welcome solutions to often difficult and troubling issues.

In Collaborative Law, we go through a five-step process to create solutions. First, we have the parties identify their most important goals, needs and interests. We ask the parties to think about the big picture and to think both short-term and long-term. Second, we gather information about the facts of the case. We learn about the financial issues and children and family issues. Third, we go through a brainstorming process in which we generate as many ideas as possible (good, bad or even ridiculous) to resolve each issue. That is done without criticizing or judging any ideas as we write them down. Fourth, we go back through and evaluate each idea. Is it feasible? Will it help achieve an important goal of a party? What are the consequences of trying it? Fifth, after a thorough discussion and evaluation, decisions are made and agreements are reached.

Collaborative Law has become the preferred method of dispute resolution for many attorneys and other professionals in Texas. There are over 400 members of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas, the statewide organization of Collaborative professionals, and there are probably a total of more than 700 professionals in Texas who have been trained in Collaborative Law. The International Academy of Collaborative Professionals has well over 1000 members in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and many other countries. The process works for clients and the attorneys and other professionals find it a more enjoyable and rewarding way to help people through very difficult times.

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