Saturday, September 15, 2012

Do I Really Need an MHP (Mental Health Professional)?

Sometimes, people start to wonder what they've gotten themselves into.  They go in to hire an attorney to do a Collaborative Divorce and they end up with a lawyer and a shared therapist and shared financial advisor.

So, why should they feel good about working with a neutral mental health professional (MHP)?  Here are some of the benefits:

Communication Facilitator.  The MHP helps the parties be comfortable in meetings.  Since the Collaborative process relies heavily on getting both parties to express their feelings, wants and needs, it is important to have someone who is trained in helping people express themselves effectively.

Maintaining Order. An MHP acts like a discussion traffic cop, if necessary.  That means that the MHP not only draws out information from the parties, but helps regulate the behavior of the parties, and even the attorneys, if needed.  Family law issues are very personal and emotional.  Attorneys are not trained to be able to recognize emotional issues and responses, much less manage them, but the mental health professional is.  I have had many situations where we took a "time out" in a joint meeting at the insistence of the MHP to cool things down or deal with some emotional issues that were building up that us attorneys weren't noticing.  Our meetings were literally saved by the MHP being able to intervene and help everyone.

Improving Listening.  People take it for granted that they know how to listen to others, but lack of listening is actually one of the biggest complaints in marriages.  MHPs are constantly helping parties become better listeners.  Part of that effort is helping people speak appropriately and part is making sure that messages are being heard correctly.  Having a neutral expert help with that develops an extremely beneficial skill which people can take away from the process.

Coaching.  While an MHP does not get involved in therapy during the Collaborative process, he or she can help the parties deal with the pressures and stresses of going through a legal process.  As a side benefit, I have had MHPs help me better understand my own client by explaining what's going on under the surface.  Getting a divorce or dealing with other family law issues can be less daunting for both with the expert help of the neutral MHP.

Parenting Specialist.  Sometimes, we bring in a separate child specialist to help the parties develop a parenting plan to take care of the children.  In many cases, however, we utilize the MHP who generally has considerable experience in helping to resolving kid issues.  They can help the parties work out living arrangements, shared possession schedules, support issues, how to share the powers of parents and such hot-button issues as managing extra-curricular activities and expenses  and how and when to tell the children about new romantic relationships of the parents.  Much of the preliminary work on those issues can be handled off-line.

Caveat 1:  The above is based on how we work with mental health professionals in Texas.  Other states and jurisdictions work with MHPs in different ways.  No way is automatically better than all others.  Each area tends to develop their own approaches, so just be sure to get information that relates to your jurisdiction.

Caveat 2:  Because of my experience, I will generally not handle a Collaborative case without a neutral mental health professional.  That is true with many other Collaborative attorneys in my area.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Value of Off-Line Meetings

When people learn about Collaborative Law, they often focus on the joint meetings where we work through the steps of reaching an agreement.  We call it the Roadmap to Resolution around here.  We determine the goals, needs and interests for each party. Then we gather information.  After that, we identify issues and brainstorm solutions.  We follow that with an analysis and comparison of options until we reach agreement.  It's actually a pretty logical progression. 

A lot of the work happens in joint meetings, but significant preparation is also done outside of the joint meetings.  Everything comes together and stays together because of "off-line" meetings.  Here's how.

  • Before the joint meetings, the attorneys will usually meet with their client.  Sometimes, those meetings are a day or a few days before the joint meeting.  Other times, the meetings will be for a few minutes just before the joint meeting.  Those meetings are important for the attorney and party to update each other and to discuss what to expect at the joint meeting.  The result is a more productive meeting and a client who feels more secure in the process.
  • After the joint meetings, attorneys usually meet with their client briefly, at the meeting site or sometimes later by phone or in person.  This meeting is to review and discuss what happened at the joint meeting. It helps attorneys find out how their client was feeling about things and it helps the client better understand what happened at the meeting.
  • Between joint meetings, the parties often will meet with the other professionals to gather and review financial information, discuss options, work out a draft of a parenting  plan or do other preliminary steps.  This informal work is less stressful for the parties and allows the professionals to answer questions and follow up efficiently on requests for information.  As a result, a lot of preliminary work gets done without the cost of having the attorneys around.  The professionals work in their specialized areas, saving time and money for the parties.
  • Also between joint meetings, parties will meet with their attorney as needed.  It is in a private, confidential setting and the attorney can answer questions, give advice and help their client to prepare for the joint meeting coming up.    
  • A final type of meeting between joint meetings is a meeting or conference call involving some or all of the professionals in the case.  Occasionally, a problem or crisis will come up in a case, and it would be helpful for the professionals to discuss what's happening in the case.  Sometimes, only one professional knows about it, but the activity can threaten the success or change the direction of the process, so it is important for all the professionals to know about it.  That way, they can come up an appropriate response to keep the process on track for a successful conclusion.
The Collaborative process involves a lot of communication between the parties, between the parties and their attorneys, between the parties and the other professionals and between all the professionals in the case.  The enhanced communication helps make Collaborative Law a much more effective, efficient and safe way for people to resolve family law issues.