Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why We Use Interest-Based Bargaining

In Collaborative Law cases, we work hard to get the parties to establish and then focus on their goals, needs and interests. Negotiating with that perspective is called interest-based bargaining. One of the great advantages of Collaborative Law is the emphasis on goals, needs and interests. Instead of taking at arbitrary approach, such as aiming for half of everything, or using state guidelines to set child support or visitation schedules, interest-based negotiations look at what's important to, or needed by, each party. While courts virtually never order everything sold and the proceeds split equally, many people still start out blindly wanting half of everything. Very often, that's a bad solution.

1. Positional Bargaining. While some people start out saying they want half of everything, many others will start from an extreme position so that they can end up at 50-50 or at a slightly more favorable (but still arbitrary) position. Most people going through divorce use "positional" bargaining, either having an arbitrary 50-50 target or starting at extreme positions and not focusing on what's really important to them. That usually involves tunnel vision, looking only at what's in front of them and not considering alternative ways to meet their needs.

2. Other Contexts. Positional bargaining is used in other contexts as well. Many people will buy a house by negotiating the price with the seller. Sometimes it works out, but other times it doesn't because of an extreme starting point or the unwillingness of one of the parties to compromise. Sometimes the negotiations in other situations become heated and inflammatory language is used as a means of getting someone to change their position. Many people just automatically start a negotiation by claiming an extreme starting point from which they plan to move to an acceptable end point.

3. Interest-Based Negotiations. In Collaborative Law, the focus from the start is on what's really important to the parties. We don't have an arbitrary goal, like 50-50, or arbitrary starting point. Instead, we start with something like "having a safe, affordable house" or "being able to finish the job training program", things that are not as quantifiable, but which are clearly very important to one of the parties. Interest-based approaches require a lot of thought and planning, and they encourage creativity in coming up with customized solutions. Receiving half of a pension might not enable a party to pay for job training, but getting alimony could provide the means for that. Traditional litigated divorces focus on a limited field of possibilities. Collaborative Law emphasizes the parties' real interests.

Examples: In Collaborative Law, here are some examples of solutions linked to needs.
  • If a party needs cash, there can be alimony or the more liquid assets could go 100% to one party and the other party could get other assets.
  • If one party needs more retirement funds, that could be agreed, with the other party getting other assets.
  • If there's an odd work schedule, the parties can create a unique possession schedule for the kids, instead of using the standard schedules.
  • If a child or a party has special needs, there can be special solutions.
  • If a party hasn't worked outside the home for a number of years, there can be a focus on getting support or job training, not just splitting the assets.
Anyone wanting a thoughtful divorce should consider using Collaborative Law so they can get the advantage of interest-based negotiating.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Planning Ahead

Waiting to file until after the holidays. At this time of the year, I have noticed that quite a few people who are about ready to file for divorce have decided to wait until after the holidays. Every year, we get really busy in January and February filing new divorces because people want the divorce, but don't want to mess up the holiday season. It's actually a good idea (usually) to wait. Here's why:

  • If there are kids, they still have a chance to have a nice holiday; if there's fighting, however, that may not work out. Still, why mess up a major holiday and create a bad association with it for the rest of the child's life? Waiting to file for divorce keeps the possibility of kids enjoying the holidays.
  • Taking a little more time gives you time to research your alternatives. Should you try Collaborative Law? Or mediation? Or stay with litigation? How do they work? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
  • You can use a little extra time to gather resources for the radical change that's coming. Maybe you can save some money.
  • You can also use the time to gather financial information and copy records.
  • There's also an opportunity to take pictures of things around the house and elsewhere. Use the time to create some useful records and references.
  • Do a little thinking and planning about what you want to end up with, what you need, what your may want, etc. Plan ahead!
  • Make sure you are emotionally ready to pull the plug on your marriage. Is it really over? Have you done everything you can do, or want to do, to try to save it? For some people, this is a major consideration. If you are not sure, take your time.
So, there are obviously some good reasons to move carefully and slowly right now. If you choose to wait to file, you can still do some research on Collaborative Law -- one of the options for how to get a divorce -- by meeting with a Collaborative attorney.
A good way to start is to find some Collaborative attorneys where you live and research them on line. Check with friends or other attorneys to find out who is recommended in your area. In you live in Tarrant County, Texas, there are a number of good, experienced Collaborative attorneys. By meeting with an attorney now, you can plan ahead and protect yourself. You can also evaluate whether you are comfortable with the attorneys you visit.
Meeting with an attorney early allows you to make a more thoughtful decision on who you hire and how and when you proceed.

Friday, November 11, 2011

10 Tips for Better Collaborative Communication

At all stages of a Collaborative Law case, communication skills are important. How you say something is often just as important as what you say, regardless of whether you are talking with your attorney, your spouse or one of the neutral experts involved. At the outset of a Collaborative case, you can expect your attorney, the other attorney and any neutral experts in the case to have some discussion with both parties about how improving your communication style can improve your chances of success. Conversely, poor communication skills and strategies can sabotage the case. During the course of a Collaborative case, there are usually reminders give to the parties about how they are communicating.

At the outset, and all the way to the end of the case, you should try the following suggestions. Many of them are common sense and you may have even heard a lot of these from your parents when you were growing up. They are still good advice.

1. Look the other person in the eye. While this may not feel comfortable in some situations, failing to do so may lead to your spouse making inaccurate assumptions about what you are saying. "Not seeing eye to eye" is more than a figure of speech. It is often assumed to be an indication of deception. Get some help if that is difficult for you.

2. Answer. If you receive a message or a question, please answer so the other person knows you received it. Ignoring it may lead to various unhelpful assumptions about your silence.

3. Don't attack verbally. Sometimes discussions end when one party gets on a roll and starts criticizing the other party. Even if it's "true", don't attack. It doesn't help at all and it may end discussions.

4. Ask for what you want. Don't wait for someone else to speak up for you and don't think you can bring it up later. No one will be reading your mind. Don't assume that someone will remember what you may have said in the past. Speak up for yourself.

5. Speak factually. Don't exaggerate or make up details. Don't make assumptions about what your spouse or someone else wants or would do or say.

6. Don't be looking at your cell phone while you are in a discussion. Pay attention to just the discussion at hand. Choosing your cell phone over the live person or persons you are talking with is rude and would probably be considered insulting.

7. Respond without engaging in or starting an argument. You don't have to be mean or angry as you respond to what is said. Try to keep things factual.

8. Don't rehash all the history of wrongs you suffered that were inflicted by your spouse. In a Collaborative context, the focus is on the future, not on assigning blame for past issues.

9. Respond directly and briefly. Don't start a tirade because of a comment. Don't change the subject and get off on a tangent. You don't want to pay for long, unproductive meetings.

10. Don't make assumptions or read things into statements. Those are common problems, even in Collaborative cases. Try dealing with statements on face value. Adding assumptions will always cause problems because the assumptions are usually wrong and negative.

Whether you are talking with your spouse, having a discussion in a joint meeting or working with a neutral expert, you will have an easier time by implementing the suggestions above.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

7 Tips on How to Tell the Kids

For good parents who are approaching a divorce, one of the hardest things to do is to tell the children that their parents will be divorcing. Some parents just blurt out the news without much thought, but others really struggle to figure out the best way to explain things so that they will not emotionally devastate the kids. For some children, the divorce is not news at all. But for most children, hearing the words is tough to take.

My best suggestion on how to tell the children is for you to work with a counselor. You can get expert help on what, when and how to say things in a way that is less stressful for the kids.

To supplement that, I would add the following suggestions:

1. Do the right planning. Think about things ahead of time and plan for the best time to allow your kids to process the information and feel safe. Be able to explain how the divorce will affect them. Don't over promise or guarantee certain outcomes. Don't discuss issues that haven't been decided. You may have to sometimes say, "We don't know, yet."

2. Do it at the right time. Decide whether you should tell them before someone moves out (probably so), but don't do it too early (and then continue living together) or too close to the move out (they need time to process). A good time may be at the start of a weekend, so there's time for the children to talk with both parents, if they want to. You should probably not tell the kids just before a major holiday or a test at school or some athletic or extracurricular event. It's obviously hard to find a good time.

3. Do it with the right people. That usually means that both parents should be present and should participate about equally. It is preferable to say "we" more than "I". Make it a joint effort.

4. Do it with the right reasons. You can explain things in broad terms, such as "We aren't getting along and can't fix the situation." Don't blame each other and don't be too specific.

5. Provide the right responses. Listen and respond to your children's comments and questions. Provide age appropriate responses. You can give broad statements, rather than a lot of specifics. Do reassure the kids that both of you still love them and the split has nothing to do with them.

6. Provide the right amount of information. Most children don't really want or need to know the nitty gritty details. Be sure the kids know that there is no hope of reconciliation and that you have both reached that decision after carefully considering all the circumstances. Don't try to give the children too much information. Keep it brief.

7. Do it with the right mood. Timing is important. Don't try to have the discussion when the children (and the parents) are tired, hungry, busy, upset or preoccupied. That could lead to bad reactions.

If you are about to get a divorce and you have kids, someone will have to talk with the kids about what's going on. In Collaborative cases, parents usually can get expert help from a counselor to prepare for this important discussion and the parents will usually cooperate in this effort. You can consider the factors above when you and your spouse are planning what to do. Good luck!

If anyone has any additional ideas to share about how to tell your kids about divorce, please share them by commenting below.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Looking for a Little Privacy!

Every few years, Hollywood will come out with a movie like "War of the Roses" or "Kramer vs. Kramer" that highlights the damaging effects of extremely litigated divorces. Most people have family or friends, if not personal experience, with a contested divorce, and they are familiar with how divorces can become a public spectacle. While divorces vary in the degree of animosity and fighting, even relatively agreeable cases often involve at least some public displays of very personal matters.

One way for people to try to protect their privacy is to choose Collaborative Law as the process they use for a divorce or other family law matter. If you are facing the end of a marriage and you are deciding how to proceed, you might want to consider whether you want to use a private process or go public.

Here are some reasons why some people want to protect their privacy:

1. Many people using Collaborative Law own their own business. They may have a family business or a start-up business, or there may be a small business they have nurtured with a plan for it to grow in the future. Divorce for business owners can be scary because of the possibility of disrupting or damaging the business. Owners don't normally want their competitors to be able to find out the financial details about the business and wouldn't want competitors to get aggressive while the owner is distracted by a public, litigated divorce. Keeping the divorce quiet makes good business sense.

2. Professionals facing divorce are often drawn to Collaborative Law. Doctors, lawyers,
CPAs, engineers, counselors and other professionals usually want to protect their professional image, and a messy divorce can really tarnish what had been a carefully protected image, which can hurt business.

3. Sometimes people going through a divorce don't want their neighbors to know. Not all neighbors are wonderful, but many people also wouldn't want good friends to know all about the divorce or their finances or personal habits, etc.

4. Similarly, many people wouldn't want some of their nosy relatives to know. Every family has busy-bodies and gossips. Some will have nasty relatives who are just trouble makers. In those situations, it can be really nice to do everything privately.

5. Protecting children
can be very important to some parties. Children should not be exposed to adult disagreements and should not become players in the process Kids don't need to be able to read about their parents' divorce in the paper or go to the courthouse to find contentious documents with unflattering statements about the parents. Kids will obviously know a divorce is going on, but they don't need to be privy to the gory details of the breakup.

At a time when privacy seems to be slipping away because of technology, it's nice to have a divorce option that goes against the tide and provides a process for parties to a divorce to work privately with divorce lawyers and neutral professionals in a civilized manner. Collaborative Law is the option with that opportunity.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

You Don't Have to be Crazy to Benefit from the Mental Health Professional

Collaborative lawyers in Tarrant County, Texas will almost always insist on using a neutral mental health professional (MHP) in a major role in a Collaborative Law case here. Although the Collaborative Law statute doesn't require the use of an MHP, there are few, if any, cases started in Tarrant County that don't include an MHP. If you are considering whether to try the process as a settlement method, you might want to know why we insist on bringing in another professional.

At first, using the therapist may just seem like an unnecessary additional cost for the clients to bear. When we started doing Collaborative cases 10 years ago, we didn't automatically bring in the counselor at the beginning. We sometimes brought one in during the process if things started to fall apart and the parties were threatening to quit. A therapist at that point sometimes was successful in helping us reach an agreement, but sometimes things were too far gone to be fixed. The lesson became clear: the neutral MHP was very helpful, especially if we brought them in early.

Here are some specific reasons why mental health professionals have become integral to the Collaborative Law process:

1. MHPs can help the parties change perspectives during the case. When the spouses are dealing with kid issues, they need to relate to each other as adult parents who are on the same team. When they are dealing with property division issues, they are in the roles of spouses -- husbands and wives -- which is different from parents. Co-parenting is an important goal for most well-intentioned parents, and an MHP can help spouses switch gears and get into a co-parenting mode when they discuss child support, visitation and other child-related issues. Husbands and wives still need to be cooperative in dealing with property division issues, but it is a different point of view.

2. MHPs can help the parties learn to listen better. That is a very valuable skill that will improve communication and can lead to better cooperation. Everyone feels better if they know they are being heard by others. Too often, spouses going through a divorce engage in arguments without seriously listening to each other. A neutral therapist can help train the parties to improve their listening skills and that may help the parties have a better relationship post-divorce.

3. MHPs can help the parties learn to communicate better. Word choice is an under-appreciated element of effective communication. With some guidance from a neutral MHP, a party can become a more effective negotiator by avoiding saying some things that will usually trigger an angry response from their spouse. Therapists can often help the parties recognize and avoid emotionally-laden words and phrases. Just avoiding using the word "you" and replacing it with an "I" statement (for example: saying "I feel insecure when I don't get to see the financial records...." instead of "You never let me see the bank statements" ) effectively conveys the message without attacking the spouse.

4. MHPs help the parties manage their emotions. With skills that attorneys don't ordinarily possess, therapists can often recognize anger, fear and other emotions in time to deal with them before they derail the process. As effective as Collaborative Law is, the process is still often very emotional and difficult. MHPs often meet or talk with the parties between joint meetings and can help defuse small problems before they become big issues.

5. MHPs observe and are alert to developing problems at joint meetings. They keep the peace and keep the parties from becoming upset at meetings. With a counselor watching and listening to the parties, we can quickly intervene and stop escalating bad behaviors, such as anger, offensive body language or controlling actions or statements. The MHPs help the parties keep the high ground and not fall into old patterns of arguments that can be very destructive.

Having a neutral mental health professional active from the beginning of the case helps the parties be prepared for problems, avoid problems and react appropriately to difficult and stressful situations. Rather than being considered just an additional expense, MHPs are usually a lifesaver for the process, an excellent investment in reaching an agreement and a better post-divorce relationship.

Don't be surprised if your Collaborative divorce lawyer in Fort Worth or Tarrant County insists on working with a therapist. You would be crazy to disregard that advice.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why Collaborative Law is a More Civilized Process for Divorce

Some people facing the prospect of a divorce are angry and want to punish their spouse, regardless of the cost and how it may affect their lives after they are divorced. Others search for a low-key, civilized way to split the sheets and go their separate ways. Those who do not want a destructive, expensive and stressful experience are beginning to turn to Collaborative Law when they learn about it. The process is not yet widely known among the public, but it is gaining more and more fans as they learn about it and try it out.

If you are looking for a nicer alternative to traditional litigation, here are some reasons why Collaborative Law may be your answer.

1. Collaborative Law involves negotiations that are interest-based. That means that the parties ignore traditional guidelines or formulas to come up with agreements. Instead of staking out extreme opening positions and working toward an arbitrary middle ground, the parties identify their goals, needs and interests at the first joint meeting and then follow up to make sure that any solutions that are discussed are consistent and supportive of those goals. A purpose of the process is to help the parties meet their most important needs.

2. The process works through a series of relatively short meetings. Here in Tarrant County, our Collaborative meetings usually run for 1 1/2 to 2 hours each. We don't have marathon sessions (like mediations usually do) because people get tired and don't function as well when there are 3-5 hour meetings. We have agendas that are created for each session and we can take breaks as needed. The meetings are nothing like court and very informal. We do what we can to reduce the stress of meetings, but we can always at least keep them short.

3. In Fort Worth and Tarrant County cases, we normally use a neutral mental health professional (MHP) as a communication facilitator. That's a broad responsibility which covers a lot of territory. We have excellent, experienced therapists who regularly work with us, which makes our team of professionals more effective. The MHP doesn't do therapy with the parties, but she/he does meet with the parties together or individually, as needed, and lends invaluable assistance at the joint meetings. On more than one occasion, when the other attorney and I hadn't noticed any problem, I have seen the MHP speak up and help one of the parties who was feeling slighted or attacked or distressed for some reason. A therapist is an extra layer of protection for the parties in a very difficult time in their lives.

4. The Collaborative process helps maintain a balance of power between the two sides. In some marriages, one spouse tends to dominate the other, generally or on certain issues. For example, one spouse may control the finances and the other spouse may not know much at all about them. In that type situation, the attorneys help keep balance, but an even larger help comes from the neutral financial professional (FP) who works for both parties. The FP will make sure that there is a thorough investigation and reporting on the finances, regardless of who ran the show in the past. It is a unique dynamic not found in litigated cases. Likewise, the MHP makes sure that there's no bullying and undue pressure or unfair tactics being used.

5. The financial professional also helps the parties with tax and other financial issues that need to be addressed during the divorce.
The FP is specially trained in Collaborative Law and is familiar with Texas divorce law, so she/he can understand and explain various options, as well as tax consequences. Working together, the parties can often create tax savings that are ignored or impossible in litigated divorces where there is little cooperation.

For people wanting a more rational, civilized approach to divorce, Collaborative Law is likely the answer. It has been called the "kinder, gentler process" and it really is.

Special Note: If you are interested in finding a Collaborative lawyer, be sure to check the experience and training in Collaborative Law of the lawyer you visit. A trained Collaborative professional should have, at a minimum, a 2-day basic training and then 1 or 2 trainings a year after the initial one. Unfortunately, some non-Collaborative attorneys advertise about Collaborative Law and then just talk prospective clients out of it. While Collaborative won't work for everyone, you might get a second opinion if an attorney just tries to talk you out of it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Slow Down!

One of the most common issues that comes up in Collaborative divorces is the desire by one or both parties to speed up the process. This can come up at the beginning or at various other times as we work through preparation and meetings.

Why are people in a hurry? There are a variety of reasons. Here's some:
  • They want to save money. Fewer meetings = less cost (unless you get a bad result and have to start over).
  • Divorce is stressful and they want it over with.
  • They already have plans and want to get started on their post-divorce life.
  • They don't want to be around the spouse any more than they have to.
  • They are tired of fighting.
  • The case seems very simple and shouldn't take any time.
  • They can do things quicker on their own.
  • Some don't like the process because they have to make tough decisions.
  • They don't think there are any alternatives that they haven't thought of.
  • Some don't like the "touchy-feely" aspects of a Collaborative case.
As a result of having some of those attitudes, parties in a Collaborative case will sometimes try to skip steps or try to meet with just their spouse to resolve some or all of the issues. That usually works out badly. Keep in mind that most people starting a Collaborative divorce have already failed at directly negotiating the issues with their spouse.

Here are three significant steps that should not be skipped:

1. Setting goals. Many people downplay this stage and are satisfied with such vague goals as
wanting a "fair" property division, "reasonable child support" and an "adequate" amount of time with the children.
  • Going through the process of setting goals for yourself helps clarify your thinking and focus on what's really important to you.
  • The process also educates your spouse about what you need. Even though you may have been married for a while, you spouse often doesn't really know what you want or need out of life.
  • Goal setting is also a way to help everyone to start thinking about solutions. Once you identify what to aim for, possible solutions start appearing.
2. Gathering information. It is very common for one or both parties to think that they know what they have or what their circumstances are. That's not always the case. In fact, it is very common for at least one party to know very little about some aspects such as property, debts or children. An organized effort of gathering information can help both parties.
  • Don't assume you know everything. Some things may have been intentionally hidden from you. Other things may have always been overlooked by you.
  • One of the advantages of Collaborative Law is that there is an extra set of eyes looking over everything, whether it is financial or children's issues.
  • Having a neutral-led effort to gather and share information can help where one spouse may not understand about debts or assets or child-care issues, for example.
3. Brainstorming. This is the step where the parties try to come up with as many different ways to meet their needs as they can. Often even ridiculous ideas can be tweaked into really effective solutions. It is very common for one or both parties to come to a meeting and announce that they already know the solution and than brainstorming is unnecessary. That is a mistake.
  • You will limit your options if you skip over brainstorming. You may miss some great ideas.
  • You will limit creativity. One of the best things about Collaborative Law is that it permits and encourages finding unusual solutions.
  • Your needs may not get met. If you take a very limited approach, you may not be able to actually deal with some important needs. Assuming that you already know all the possible solutions may result in dissatisfaction with the outcome.
If you give in to the urge to move quickly and skip "unnecessary" steps, you run the risks of not getting heard, of missing out on creative problem solving and of completely missing resolving the issues most important to you. There is also the risk of one party being overbearing and trying to dominate the other party, leading to bad results as well.

All-in-all, from my experience, you will not get nearly as good a result when you move too quickly and skip steps in the Collaborative process.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Finding a Job Later in Life While Going Through a Divorce

Many people going through a divorce face the prospect of needing to get a job right away because they will be living on their own and will need the income to support themselves and maybe their children. For Baby Boomers and others later in life, it's a whole new world with a job market they have never experienced.

Finding a job can be daunting any time you are searching when you don't already have a job. The difficulty is heightened if you are suddenly on the market, especially when you haven't worked for a while. Not being able to plan ahead for a job search can make it hard to qualify for some jobs at the same time you experience the urgency of needing something right away. That can be compounded when you don't even know what kind of work you want to do.

These problems are intensified even more when the economy is very slowly leaving a recession, which means that a lot of other people are looking for jobs at the same time you are, when there aren't many jobs available. If you also happen to be going through a divorce, the pressure can seem overwhelming.

Getting Started -- Analyzing Yourself
Since you need to know what to apply for, you may want to consult with a counselor, an employment adviser or an employment agency for guidance in determining a career target. It's important to figure out, if you don't already know, what kinds of careers would possibly work for you. There are some aptitude tests to help you focus on the careers that match your personality, interests and experience. Do some testing before you start searching, so you'll know what to aim for.

Once you decide the type of work you think you want to do, here are some additional steps that can help you find a job.

1. Freshen your resume. First, get a professional to look over what you have and help you come up with appropriate content and design. Resumes are very different from what was common 15 or 20 or 30 years ago. If you haven't been working outside the home, you need to be able to deal with that issue.

2. Do volunteer work. If you don't have recent paid work experience, you can do volunteer work that can improve your resume, especially if the volunteering was related to the field that you want to work in. Doing unpaid work is also a way to try out a field and decide if it is something that might interest you. For example, if you want to be a teacher, help out at a school. You can be an intern for different companies and get a feel for whether you would be comfortable in the industry or in that company.

3. Brush up your skills. You might have a college degree or previous work experience in a field, but if you haven't worked in the field for years, you probably need a refresher course and new skills. We all know how much things have changed throughout our lives. You should plan on getting training for your field, no matter how much experience you had before.

4. Put yourself out there. Plan on networking in person and through the social media. LinkedIn, Twitter and even Facebook can be platforms to tell the world that you are looking for a job and to connect with people who might be able to help you get a job. There are lots of networking groups around that focus on finding jobs. You might join one of those, if you are comfortable with it. At the very least, you need to tell people (in a positive way) that you are looking for a job and you should be able to tell them exactly what you want. You've got to keep talking with everyone about your quest -- you're marketing yourself, so plan on investing your time and energy in it.

5. Get a technology tune-up. Find out the latest technology and software being used in your target industry, and then take some quick classes to upgrade your skills. Having a good personality is usually no longer good enough to get a job. Pretty much everyone uses computers and other technology for almost every job. You need to be able to show your proficiency with current technology for your career.

When you discover that you need to get a job, especially if you are a little older and haven't worked in a while, you will have to work extra hard to find a good job. If you have any other suggestions to help others, please send in a comment with your ideas!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Who Do You Want Controlling the Outcome of Your Case?

One of the core elements of Collaborative Law is that we remove the case from the court system and let the parties create their own terms, rather than have a judge decide issues. People who haven't been through the court system sometimes don't appreciate that difference between litigation and Collaboration.

In Tarrant County, Texas, we have six family courts that have two judges each, a District Judge and an Associate Judge. The Associate Judge hears most preliminary matters and the District Judge is usually the one to hear any final trials. When the parties cannot agree, the Associate Judge usually ends up making decisions on temporary issues, including custody, child support, visitation, who stays in the house, how the bills get paid and how the money is allocated, among other things.

There was recently an extensive article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about one of our Associate Judges. The article should not be taken as a scientific or completely accurate study of Judge Beebe, and definitely shouldn't be generalized to describe all of our family court judges. In fact, we have 12 judges with 12 personalities that are very different. While the judges all work with the same Family Code (statute) that we use in Collaborative cases, there is a tremendous variation from court to court as to how our judges make decisions, how they run their courts and even what issues are important or not important to them.

The Star-Telegram article does give a glimpse into what life can be like in the court system. Our judges in Tarrant County have a variety of experience and each has their own way of reaching the "truth" or dealing with the essential issues. All the judges know that there are two sides to every story. They have a hard job trying to come up with decisions that protect the rights and interests or both parties and any children. Unfortunately, the judges have limited exposure to the case and limited time to deal with it. Sometimes the parties are happy with the judge's decision, but often one or both parties are very unhappy.

If you are about to get involved in a family law dispute, you have a choice to make. Do you want a judge deciding the outcome of your case, or do you and your spouse want to make the decisions yourselves with the aid of neutral professionals for communication issues, children's issues and financial decisions?

For some people, turning everything over to a judge is a relief. Other people like to maintain control over their future and make their own decisions with expert assistance. If you are facing family law issues, it's a good idea to consult with a Collaborative Law attorney, as well as a litigation attorney, before deciding what course you will follow.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Is It Taking So Long? (Part 2)

In part one of this topic, we pointed out that Collaborative Law usually doesn't take as long as a significant, contested litigation case. In addition, there are some reasons why Collaborative cases require a number of meetings.

When you are the person attending the meetings, doing the homework and meeting with your attorney and the neutral mental health professional (MHP) and the neutral financial professional (FP), it can seem like a very slow process. You stay busy and it may seem like one meeting after another, with no end in sight.
In reality, there are good reasons for being methodical and following through with the process. Here are some of the reasons:

1. People need time to process information.
No matter how educated or experienced you and your spouse may be in financial and child-related issues, it will take each of you different lengths of time to process the information relating to the issues in the case. Not very many people are comfortable making instant decisions on important personal financial and family issues. There are usually many options and even more considerations for each party.

2. One spouse is usually farther ahead emotionally in the divorce process than the other spouse.
That means that the parties and professionals are often slowed down to wait on the less-farther-along spouse to get comfortable with changes in his/her life. It is not uncommon for one spouse to have checked out of the marriage months or years before filing, while the other spouse is clueless. The clueless one will need time to catch up, and that necessarily slows down the process because things have to be done by agreement.

3. It often takes a while to gather information.
While one spouse is often very familiar with the financial issues, for example, the other spouse may be very unfamiliar with them, so extra care is taken to educate the other spouse. In addition, the FP may want to review documents that take a while to obtain, such as retirement account plans and summaries, for example. Some issues relating to the children may need to be sought out, especially if there are special needs.

4. The parties need time to come up with creative solutions.
Some issues are complicated and sometimes there are multiple significant issues. The parties and professionals need to create appropriate solutions and sometimes that's just a slow process. In some situations, the parties decide they need more information or more expert advice, which adds to time commitment.

5. It is usually necessary to limit the meetings to no more than two hours each. The parties and professionals get tired and that can lead to conflict or one party shutting down. There's no reason for the parties to get into a marathon negotiation session. That's often the way mediations are conducted, and it's often a problem. When there is a complicated estate or significant assets, there's a lot to cover and the discussions shouldn't be superficial. In such a stressful environment, people can operate effectively for only about two hours at a time.

The amount of time it takes to do a Collaborative case should not be an issue if you keep in mind that litigation would almost always take longer and there are good reasons why Collaborative Law cases take longer than you might initially expect.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tips for a Better Collaborative Experience

Although most people enter into the Collaborative divorce process with the intent to get a "better" or "more civilized" or "friendly" divorce, the good intentions often fade away in the heat of the moment. In Collaborative cases, emotions can still be high, fears still exist and relational problems that may have led to the separation still exist. Personal and inter-personal problems are not cured by the signing of the Participation Agreement at the start of the process. Sure, everyone promises to behave and be cooperative and not delve into blame for past problems, but it is easy to change course if one or both parties gets mad or anxious.

The attorneys and other professionals working on the case are trained to recognize any bad or inappropriate behavior and to help the parties get back on course. Still, it would be better if both parties could avoid the flare-ups. With that in mind, here are 5 tips to help people in Collaborative cases to do their best.

1. Don't negotiate with your spouse between sessions. This is a very common problem and it's a very bad idea. Sometimes the case is going well and the parties think they can quickly settle some issues without the professionals around. Sometimes the parties just want to save money and settle some issues without involving the professionals. In practice, it usually doesn't work out well. The same problems, attitudes or behaviors that made it impossible to work things out before the parties hired lawyers still exist and will reassert themselves without the management of the professionals in the case. Please don't start negotiating directly outside of Collaborative sessions.

2. Don't text your spouse in anger or when fueled by alcohol. This doesn't need to be explained. Beyond that, I would suggest that any texting be extremely limited. Remember, such messages can be saved and would look very bad in court if the process broke down. And, that's not an effective way to get your spouse to do what you are wanting. (In addition, see the comments in #1).

3. Don't leave messages on a phone when you are angry or intoxicated. (See the comments in #2 and #1.)

4. Don't focus on blame or fault. It doesn't have a significant role in a Collaborative case. It is much better to look forward and not backwards. You may think your spouse is at fault on major issues, and you may be right, but your spouse would also blame you for some problems, and might also be right. There's almost always fault on both sides of a divorce. The problem is that after the argument about who's more at fault, you haven't moved any closer to resolution. You have just wasted time and created ill will which will make it harder to get to an agreement.

So, what should you do?

5. Focus on big goals, not small issues. Don't stay focused on the ground, look up! Formulate broad, relevant, important goals for yourself. Don't limit yourself to a predetermined outcome. For example, your true goal for housing may be to have a safe, affordable, secure home in a good neighborhood. That might include the house you live in now, but there might be other ways to accomplish that goal -- get a new house, a duplex, an apartment, house sit, rent a house, live with a friend or relative, etc. If you limit your goal to keeping the house you live in now, you may miss an opportunity to have a better living arrangement. Collaborative Law gives you the possibility of creating a better future for yourself. Don't waste your time dealing primarily with little problems. Your attorney and the other professionals can help you formulate goals for your situation. Think Big!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Collaborative Law is Spreading World-Wide

As an interesting sidelight, I want to point you to a recent article on an Australian attorney's blog mentioning how the President of their South Australia Law Society (bar association) was talking about Collaborative Law in a recent newspaper story. He has a good, basic description of how the process works and encourages people to consider using it if they are about to go through a divorce.

Collaborative Practice is also very strong in areas all across the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, Africa and parts of South America, as well as other areas.

The basic reasons for using Collaborative Law are the same around the world. People want a less destructive process, privacy, the ability to make their own decisions and dignity. It won't work for everyone, but for many people, it can ease the family transition from married to single.

If you are facing life-changing decisions in your family, you should research Collaborative Law and meet with a Collaborative lawyer in your area.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Seeking Equal Time with Kids -- Part 1

In both Collaborative divorces and litigated divorces, the phenomenon of a parent wanting equal time with the kids is becoming more common. Sometimes, both parents agree that it is an appropriate goal. In other cases, there is some disagreement as to how much time each parent should have. There's no automatic solution on how to divide time since it depends on many, many factors, including the history of the parties and the children. This post will assume the children are at least 3 years old, which is the most common situation. For younger children, we have a new Texas statute that we can look to for some ideas on what to do.

How to Split Time Equally There are many different ways to "equally" share time with the kids. In Texas, there is an extended standard possession schedule which is pretty close to 50-50, even though it may not seem that way. The non-creative way would be to follow the standard possession schedule, but that's usually not why people choose Collaborative Law. Some other ways include:
  • Week on, week off. This involves the children staying with one parent for 7 straight days and then moving over to the other parent for 7 straight days. Sometimes, there is a provision for weeknight contact once or twice during the week, but probably more often, it's just 7 uninterrupted days. This system is becoming more common, but whether it is a good fit with the parents and children depends on them and their needs and desires.
  • Month on, month off. This is not as common. When used, there's usually weekly access of some sort by the parent the kids are not currently staying with.

  • 2-2-3 (2 days here, 2 days there and a 3-day weekend alternating between parents). There is plenty of contact between the children and both parents. The parents get to be regularly involved with the kids on a predictable schedule which can make it easier for parents to adjust the work schedule. There is a concern, from the kids' point of view, that they are being moved around too much. Again, careful consideration should be given here as to whether this schedule benefits the kids or just primarily the parents (or one parent).

  • Every other day. There's frequent contact between both parents and the children, but at what cost? This usually seems like too much change when a child needs some stability.

  • Nesting. This is an interesting option that can rarely be done. It requires two parents who can't live together, but who live near each other and who trust each other enough that they can alternate sharing a residence. The children stay in the same residence all the time and the parents take turns (for a few days or a week) staying in the residence with the children and then moving out so the other parent can stay for the designated time. For the right couple, it can work pretty well.
Should You Try Equal Time?

1. The #1 consideration should be the effect the arrangement would have on the children. That calls for good judgment among parents, something that is often in short supply when the sensitive topic of time with the kids is being considered. Too often, there is a competition between the parents to "control" the kids by having as much time as possible. Instead, the parents should be thinking about what approach would benefit their kids the most.

2. Consider the parents' time available and abilities. Some parents have very difficult and changing work schedules which make it hard to plan ahead. In many relationships, each parent tends to take on more responsibility for certain aspects of child-rearing. That should be considered to the extent possible, but it is also possible, and often good, for parents to change their roles with the children.

3. The age of the children will often determine what is appropriate. Younger children require more time and hands-on attention. As kids get into school, they often need help with homework and with learning the discipline to study. They also still need to play and be involved in sports and extra-curricular activities. Teens, of course, are much less manageable. The time sharing needs to take into account all those factors and be able to adjust in the future.

How Should You Work it Out?

Use professionals. Don't just try to agree on something on your own. One of the great values of Collaborative Law is that you can have access to excellent neutral experts who can help you craft a plan for your kids that is appropriate for your circumstances the children's needs. Be sure to take advantage of what is available.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last Ditch Effort: Should You Try Marital Counseling?

What should you do if, after a discussion about divorce, your spouse requests that the two of you attend marriage counseling to try to save the marriage? Or, should you suggest that you and your spouse get counseling before taking the giant step of filing for divorce?

There's no universal answer, but I would generally lean toward trying the counseling. You would invest some time, money and emotional energy, but the reward could be much greater than the cost, if you are able to get your marriage back on track. Here are some possible benefits from both sides putting in the effort through counseling.

Advantages of Trying Counseling

You could improve your marital relationship and save the marriage. Counseling actually works sometimes when both parties make the commitment and follow through. It's not going to be easy, but there is a possibility of real improvement for each of you.

Even if your marriage isn't saved, there may be significant benefits from working with a counselor.
  • You and your spouse can learn some skills to help you better cope with a divorce. Your counselor can help both of you learn to listen and communicate better, manage stress and deal with difficult decisions that come up with a divorce. If you have children, you can work on learning co-parenting skills.
  • A counselor may be able to help each of you understand the need for divorce. There may be insurmountable differences in goals, values or the views of the respective roles of the parties. There could be issues relating to the extended family on either or both sides. There may be very different ideas about how to raise the kids. Some things can't be "fixed" and it can help to get that confirmed by an outsider.
  • Counseling may help synchronize the emotional states of both parties. It is quite common for one spouse to work through a lot of family issues internally without saying anything to his/her spouse, and then "suddenly" announce the need for divorce. People going through divorces usually go through a number of steps emotionally before they get to acceptance of the divorce. If only one party has been working through that journey, unbeknown to the other party, it can be really tough on the one surprised. Counseling can help the slower party understand what is happening and can help the faster party learn to slow down and give the spouse time to work through the emotions.
  • Sometimes you just need a referee to help you and your spouse have civilized, adult conversations. The counselor can help maintain order and make sure both of you are heard.
What should you do if you or your spouse wants marital counseling?

  • Make sure you get a qualified, experienced counselor. You can research on line and you should get referrals from a Family Law attorney or someone else you trust. You can change counselors if you don't like how the sessions are going, but don't use that as a weapon against your spouse.
  • Make sure you can afford the counseling. Find out what the cost is and check into whether the counseling can be covered by a health insurance policy. Only request counseling if you sincerely want it. Don't waste your money just going through the motions. Make sure your spouse is sincere about attending and following through with the counselor's suggestions.
  • Don't expect vindication. Neither you nor your spouse should go into counseling expecting vindication or a decision saying that you are completely right and your spouse is completely wrong. There is normally room for improvement on both sides.
Final Words

Remember: neither you nor a counselor can make your spouse change. Counseling can work, but don't assume that it will magically (or quickly) transform a difficult situation.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

New Skills for Finding a Job -- Using Social Media

If you are a Baby Boomer, 50 years old or more, and contemplating a divorce, you will have to make many changes in your life. Among the most important may be finding a job or career, if you will need or want to work. It is pretty common, for people going through a divorce later in life, to need to work to support themselves and their family. Many Baby Boomers have been staying at home and taking care of kids for years. Even if they worked when they were younger, their skills are rusty and their old jobs have been filled or abolished. In addition, the Boomers may have different interests now, or maybe they never liked their old jobs in the first place.

If you find yourself in this situation, there is some good news. There are many new opportunities for marketing yourself to potential employers. The Internet is the natural starting point. There are some fairly new approaches to finding a job and getting yourself known to companies and people who are hiring. Before jumping in, here are three important points to keep in mind.

Planning Ahead with Social Media

• Be careful. Make sure you think before you speak or write something. You will be judged by what you say and do on the Internet and by what your pictures show on the Internet. A lot of party pictures and stories may not convey the image you want. Watch spelling, grammar and word choice in anything written.
• Be targeted. Think about who you want to hire you and the best way to reach your potential employer. Use whatever tools you can find that will bring you into contact with acceptable employers. Don't just rely on general notices or comments. Research the industry and figure out what the leaders are involved in and then communicate there.
• Be creative. Think outside the box and find appropriate ways to distinguish yourself from the myriad of other candidates, but use good taste. Don’t just use the basic information everyone else will. Try to approach each potential employer uniquely and show that you have taken the time to research their business. Be memorable -- in a good way!

How Can You Use Social Media?

Make sure you research and determine what media your industry relates to and then watch it for a while before you jump in. Here are a few possibilities, but there are many more and there are new tools and sites created constantly, so keep looking around.

1. You Tube. You have to be very careful to be appropriate, but this can be a strong attention getter if it’s well done. You may need professional help in putting together some short videos, but you can really connect with well-done products.

2. LinkedIn. This won’t work for all jobs, but for professional careers and some others, this can be very effective. There is a huge number of people who are on LinkedIn and you can do research on a company and other employees (including interviewers, sometimes), so you can be prepared to apply. There are discussion groups for many different subjects on LinkedIn. If you can join in the discussions and contribute with give and take, you can make some connections who might help you get hired somewhere. It’s a good site where you can get to know others with similar career interests.

3. Listserves. There are tons of listserves for all kinds of interests. Search and you can probably find some you can join that relate to a particular type of job or even how to find a job. Over time, you can become friends and help each other out. You need to be able to contribute to the discussions. By being active, you will probably be able to get some useful information on a career as well as companies in your field.

4. Twitter. You can follow local people in whatever you are interested in. If you can contribute to discussions and add something interesting and useful, perhaps some links, you can develop relationships that could lead to work. You should carefully target your field and your geographic area. Don’t try to just get the highest number of followers by using some secret trick – it won’t work and it’s not worth anything to you anyway.

5. Facebook. This is mainly listed because so many people are on Facebook now. Plus, there are business or fan pages and you can look up businesses and learn about them through these pages. On the regular Facebook, you can make new connections and you can re-connect with old friends. If you take time to create and nurture relationships, job opportunities could be the result. But, you should be very careful what personal information you publish, what information you let others read and what pictures are shown. There are often very embarrassing disclosures on Facebook that just shouldn’t have been put there. Be careful and think before you post!

These are just five types of “social media”. They all take some time to produce results. You have to commit to them over time and it's really the relationships that you can create that will produce results. These can provide great opportunities for Baby Boomers and others to creatively search for employment, but don’t limit yourself to just these approaches. New tools and apps are coming out all the time, so keep looking and trying new methods. Good luck in the job search!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why Is It Taking So Long? (Part 1)

One of the most common frustrations expressed by people using the Collaborative Law model to go through a divorce is the speed (or perceived lack thereof) of the process. To me, it's a matter of perspective. When people are directly involved in regular joint meetings and meetings with their attorney and meetings with the neutral professionals, they can seem to be very busy. That is a ground-level view and it may truly seem like the process is creeping slowly along when there are 2 or 3 or 4 weeks between joint meetings. In reality, there's usually a fair amount of work getting done by various parties between the joint meetings, but it is very easy to overlook that.

Perhaps a more comforting approach is to look at the process from a figurative 30,0000-foot elevation. Looking down from high above, the Collaborative divorce process may appear to be moving much more quickly.

Comparing Collaborative to Litigation

Another way to compare the situation is to look at what would be happening if the the case were proceeding through the courts in Texas. In Tarrant County divorce courts, you can count on an average of a year, and often a year and a half, to complete a contested divorce, depending on which court you are in and how complicated your case is. Here's why:

1. Discovery can be very tedious. It is the process of gathering, organizing and sharing information between the two sides. In litigated cases, there are usually written requests for documents, written questions and some other requests for information. The parties usually have to produce documents for the last 3-5 years, at least. Many of the requested items are just minimally relevant, but everyone wants to cover all the bases and not overlook anything. The parties are usually given 30 days to produce the information, but that's usually extended because they can't get everything together that quickly.

  • After 60-90 days, the initial exchange of documents is usually completed, but one party or both usually don't think they've gotten everything, so they file motions to compel production and sometimes motions for sanctions. Those are set for court, hearings are had and there's a ruling, usually to produce the documents or answer questions.
  • In addition, experts have to be appointed to appraise businesses, real estate or pensions, and then you have to wait for their reports.
  • Afterwards, there will probably be depositions of the parties and any experts.
2. On contested children's issues, litigation is often a slow process as well. Here in Tarrant County, some courts will give a temporary custody hearing right away, while others want to do an investigation before having the hearing. Some will just start by each parent having the kids for alternating weeks, regardless of how the children have been living and regardless of parents' schedules. Often, the parents are sent to Access Facilitation to try to work out a time-sharing arrangement, and that's great when it works. If the case is truly contested, most courts will order a Social Study which usually takes 6 to 9 months to complete. In the meantime, the court will usually order the parties to attend a co-parenting class.

3. There are usually numerous court settings on contested cases. Different matters are often heard at separate times and sometimes new hearings are scheduled when the situations (facts) change. Hearings get postponed for various reasons, which can be very frustrating. In some cases, there's not an immediate decision from the judge. There are lots of opportunities for delay in the litigation system.

Conclusion: Even though a Collaborative case may feel like it's moving slowly, it's probably moving much, much faster than a contested litigation case would have been with the same issues.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Getting Help for a Later in Life Divorce

One of the best advantages of Collaborative Law is that we can bring in specialized help for the exact needs of our clients. Baby Boomers and others who face divorce after long marriages often need special help with the transition from married to single. Finances need to be managed and often one of the parties needs to change or start a career that will produce adequate income for a number of years. Sometimes, health and certain family members require extra attention. Be sure to thoroughly explain all your concerns at the outset to your attorney and the other professionals involved. Just so you know, here are some outside professionals who may be helpful.

5 Additional Professionals Who Should Be Considered

1. Divorce Financial Planner. In North Texas, we usually automatically bring in a Financial Professional from the beginning. If you are starting a Collaborative case, you should discuss this with your attorney. Although the recent recession may have affected some couples' situations, many starting a divorce after a long-term marriage must deal with substantial assets and complex business, retirement, and investment property interests. Taking a figurative saw and cutting everything in half is usually not the best solution, for many reasons. It's better to determine the best mix of assets for each spouse, considering the tax implications and the relative needs and abilities of the parties. An arbitrary approach of taking a percentage of everything may not benefit either party. It's a lot better to focus on the needs each party identifies.

2. Personal Coach. Every divorce is difficult for different reasons and sometimes parties need an unbiased “coach” who can help them stay on track and make good decisions.
Coaches don’t provide therapy. They work with you to identify, stay focused on and accomplish your goals. Many business people use coaches because they can be a great resource to bounce ideas off of and to help keep things in perspective. Coaches can help you deal with issues in a more rational and beneficial way.

3. Career Planner. After being married for a long time, it is pretty common for one of the spouses to have been a stay-at-home parent, which puts that spouse at a disadvantage in joining the job market and competing with younger workers for good-paying jobs. Sometimes previous work experience doesn’t seem as interesting as it may have been 20 or 30 years before, or there could be health issues that interfere, or the spouse may just not be up-to-date with technology in that field. It can be pretty overwhelming to suddenly have to find a job, so getting a professional evaluation first and then getting guidance as you follow through the process of finding a job can make all the difference for you. Be willing to take some tests and then get some training if you need to. A professional career planner can help you find a viable career direction, hone your skills and learn how to present yourself in the best possible light.

4. Counseling. Without anything implication that you are crazy, I can strongly urge you to get some counseling as you go through the divorce process. There are many emotional issues that you experience during a divorce. People usually go through a range of emotions, including denial, anger, depression, and acceptance, among other things. Counseling for one party is good, and for both parties can be very helpful.

5. Medical Evaluations. Unfortunately, as people age, they often experience some medical situations that can be permanent or temporary.
Sometimes it’s hard to face medical issues, but they are real and you and your family will do better in the long run if the facts are out on the table. Medical needs can make a large impact on the outcome of a divorce case in terms of property division, insurance, debts, spousal support and other issues, so you need to get the facts and incorporate them into your solutions.

What to Do

Discuss with your attorney what additional professionals might be able to help you and your case. Sometimes, you can work briefly with one or more of the professionals and get a lot of benefit. You may feel like you don't want to spend the money, but in most cases, the professionals can save or make money for you. You don't necessarily need to hire all the experts listed above, but keep an open mind because you could have a much better settlement agreement at the end if you get assistance throughout the process. With 20 to 30 or more years are at stake, you need to be very thoughtful and willing to be non-traditional.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How We Reach Agreements

Part of the Collaborative Law process involves following what we call the "Roadmap to Resolution". It is a simple, logical 5-step process that leads to good solutions to difficult problems. Here is a brief summary of the steps.

1. Determine the goals of each party. This is a fundamental step which will set the direction of the process. The parties need to identify their goals, needs and interests so that everyone knows what the targets are. These need to be set out in broader terms, rather than in very narrow, lower-level terms. For example, one might decide that a goal is to have a home in a safe neighborhood for the children. That is a higher and broader goal than saying that you want to keep the house. There very likely are a number of good houses that are affordable and in a safe neighborhood which could be the same neighborhood as now, or a different one. Having broad, macro-level goals allows more possible solutions.

2. Gather information. The parties both provide whatever information is relevant and needed. Sometimes, the parties must get outside sources to provide information, such as real estate or business appraisers. Financial information is obtained and organized by the neutral financial professional. Parenting information is shared with the neutral parenting specialist or the neutral mental health professional who helps the parties.

3. Generate options. Once the information is organized, the parties work with the whole team of professionals to create settlement options. This is a brainstorming exercise with the objective of coming up with as many ideas as possible, without judging them at this stage. Even ridiculous ideas can be included. This allows the parties to consider many possibilities that would not, often could not, be considered in a litigated case.

4. Evaluate the options. At this stage, the parties go back through the list of ideas and criticize and evaluate them. The strengths, weaknesses and relevance of each idea are discussed. Some wouldn't work at all, but others might work with a little tweaking. The evaluation stage sometimes leads to combinations or mutations of ideas so that ridiculous ideas may suddenly work or lead to workable ideas.

5. Reach agreement through discussion. Sometimes it's necessary to compromise and do some trading, but the parties can usually come up with a plan to meet each other's needs without abandoning their own values. Working with experienced Collaborative professionals, the parties can create a solution accept to both sides. Respectful communications and the acknowledgment of each other's issues leads to satisfactory resolutions in most cases.

This is a brief explanation for how agreements are reached through Collaborative Law. It is important to follow this structure. It have an outstanding track record of success. Going step by step through the process will almost always lead to success!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How to Be Successful in Collaborative Law Cases

I just ran across an interesting post about keeping a job once you are hired. On the surface, it provides some good, relevant advice for some people going through a divorce at the same time they are starting, restarting or changing careers. Below the surface, the suggestions made by the authors also provide helpful advice on how to hold onto, and even advance, in jobs. The highlights of the article are the "key lessons" that should be followed. You can see how the key lessons also apply to Collaborative cases. Here are the keys, followed by my comments:

1. Follow the Rules. In Collaborative Law cases, we operate under special rules. We share information freely. We operate with transparency. We communicate respectfully with each other. There are many rules laid out in the Participation Agreement that we review and sign before we get started. We also follow a roadmap to resolution, or a step-by-step process that leads us to agreement. We also often lay out rules of conduct to help everyone remember to behave at the their highest level. As long as we follow the rules, the process can work.

2. Be Honest. There is no room in Collaborative Law for dishonesty or deception. There are plenty of checks built into the system, but dishonesty will cause the process to terminate. If you don't want to be completely honest, or you are sure your spouse won't be honest, you shouldn't try Collaborative Law.

3. Own up to Your Mistakes. Everyone has made mistakes and we all understand that. Instead of arguing about blame, it is much easier and better to accept responsibility for any mistakes you have made in the past. And don't waste everyone's time trying to equalize the blame by proving your spouse also made a bunch of mistakes. Keep in mind that we don't spend a lot of time delving into the past. We focus on the future, so a lot of past mistakes are actually irrelevant. We'll look into issues that are relevant, but not into just everything. The point is, admit your mistakes and we can move on. That applies to both parties.

4. Demonstrate Leadership Tendencies. Volunteer to gather information or investigate some new options that have been developed. Be able to work with others and be responsible for portions of the work that must be done. Collaborative Law is not just a process where you can sit back and wait for everything to be done for you by the attorneys. You need to be actively engaged.

5. Be Nice. As important as this is in a job environment, it is equally important when you are analyzing situations and creating solutions for sensitive and important family issues. Being nice is a big part of the participation agreement and the rules of conduct that everyone readily agrees to at the beginning of the process. Please remember to "Be Nice" when the going gets a little tougher as you move closer to conclusion and difficult commitments need to be made. You can discuss nicely, disagree nicely and compromise nicely. There will certainly be difficult times ahead, but you will do better in the long run by resisting anger and being nice. Your attorney and the neutral communication specialist can help.

In case you are in a new job or want to improve your employment situation, you might look at the post in its original form about jobs. It has some helpful reminders that could help anyone, even if you are just looking to keep your current job.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Value of Managed Direct Discussion

Too often, when marriages fail, the parties get caught up in an escalating cyclone of angry words and hurt feelings. Words become weapons and little effort is made to really communicate on a substantive level. For people who don't like that and who want to escape that destructive environment, Collaborative Law offers the possibility of more respectful, and less stressful, communication. Collaborative Law is a process that relies on direct communication between the parties in a controlled environment.

Discussions occur in joint meetings attended by both parties, their attorneys and (usually) a neutral mental health professional (MHP) whose role is to facilitate communication. We usually discourage direct discussions between the parties without the team of professionals being present. Experience has shown that the parties work together well with the attorneys and MHP present, but they can quickly revert to old patterns of conflict without the professionals present. It is truly amazing how much difference there is in discussions between the parties when an MHP is present as compared to when one is not present.

Nevertheless, one of the less-emphasized advantages of Collaborative Law is the benefits derived by the parties from their direct discussions. As a reminder, here are some of the reasons why Collaborative Law is so effective:

1. The communications are unfiltered. When the parties negotiate at the courthouse, for example, they rarely stand face-to-face to discuss issues. The attorneys typically keep the parties apart and the attorneys go back and forth carrying messages from the other side and back to the other attorney. Even though it is unintentional, there is unavoidable filtering or changing of the messages. It might be a few different words, the omission of something or a change of emphasis, but there will be changes in the words that are exchanged. It changes the dynamics of the communications and sometimes will affect the decisions and agreements that are reached or that are unable to be reached.

2. There is faster communication. When the attorneys are going back and forth, there is a lot of repetition that could be avoided by direct communications. Having direct contact also allows for more immediate responses and extended discussions.

3. Non-verbal messages are sent and received in direct discussions. Facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, volume and other factors can be communicated and received in face-to-face discussions. They can add a lot of meaning and can change a message tremendously.

4. Direct discussions can help immediately correct mistakes and misunderstandings. Getting the message directly helps avoid such misunderstandings, and the direct contact allow for immediate confirmation or discussion of things that did not sound right or which may have been misunderstood.

5. The parties can deal with differences appropriately, directly and respectfully. In divorce and other family law issues, there will be disagreements. Sometimes it's best to just acknowledge the differences. In other cases, the parties may be able to compromise when they are able to express their concerns and are encouraged to listen to the other party's issues as well. With the support of the professionals on the team working with the parties, they may be able to deal with difficult subjects without losing their temper. The professionals provide a safe and effective environment for difficult discussions.

These are just some of the reasons why direct discussion can be beneficial. In a carefully managed system of communication, such as Collaborative Law provides, parties are able to effectively take advantage of the opportunities to discuss serious matters directly and possibly come to some agreements.