A successful collaborative file requires commitment and trust. Commitment to the process (staying out of court) and trust (between the clients and between/amongst their professional team)Our membership group meets once a month to connect in-person. These meetings offer an opportunity to network as well as an opportunity to build better practice models through education and training by highly skilled collaborative practitioners.This month's meeting was led by Jon Lazar, a collaboratively trained lawyer and mediator. Jon brings over 25 years of experience as a lawyer. Here is a summary of some tips and pet peeves Jon shared with respect to the collaborative practice.
Pet Peeve #1 - Use of Financial Statements (Form F8) A key foundation of signing a participation agreement and entering the collaborative process is that both the clients and the lawyers have agreed to be fully transparent. Financial transparency is the number one tenet of Family Law. A Form F8 is a legal court document that is a sworn statement containing information around income, assets/liabilities, and expenses. Typically used in litigation and often times filled out incorrectly, Form F8's are meant to tell a story or frame a position of an individual and not the household. While these Form F8's compile a lot of helpful information such as income, assets and liabilities (joint and solely owned), and expenses, they often times become the cause of miscommunication and errors and inconsistencies.
Tip #1: Use Schedules, Checklists, Excel, Whiteboards, etc...Visual representations of finances and numbers can be powerful when presented properly. The use of excel and whiteboards in the four-way meetings is a great way to capture information in real time and to help everyone understand the numbers.
Pet Peeve #2 : Being too Positional Often times in our unfettered loyalty to our clients (Lawyers I'm looking at you) we forget that we are there for the entire family in this transition of one to two homes. Often times fierce advocacy can cause disruption to the collaborative process. Remember that you are part of a team and thus advocating from a single position is not collaborating with your team.
Tip #2: Pre-briefing and De-briefing with Professionals and ClientsWhile it may feel costly (depending on how many professionals are in the room), it is often a good practice to find ways to touch base before (pre-brief) and after (de-brief) with our clients and with the other professionals on the collaborative team. Ensuring that everyone's voice is heard and that everyone is one the same page is fundamental to the success of a collaborative file.
Pet Peeve # 3: Not having an Agenda for the Four-Way meeting Having an agenda allows everyone to prepare in advance. It can also help ease client anxiety, manage expectations and create flow in meetings.
Tip #3: Have an Agenda(See Pet Peeve #3 above)
Pet Peeve #4 : Avoid Sending DivorceMate Calculations (Spousal/Child Support) too early to clients While it's important to provide clients with a wide range of outcomes, especially when it comes to spousal support (which is not always black and white; and as Jon noted ‘can be the hardest issue in family law’). Sending client's support numbers prematurely, without taking the time to explain where the numbers are coming from or making sure you have the correct input data, can be a recipe for disaster or create entrenched positions. Better to keep the initial client discussions on income and support a bit vague, and then work with your co-counsel to present a united front to the parties in their process.
Tip #4: Communicate as a Team Lack of team communication in files where there are other professionals (mental health professional and financial professional) can make it difficult for clients to move forward. Often times clients are receiving information from multiple sources. It can be overwhelming and confusing. As a general rule, whenever there is complex legal info, it may be more effective if the lawyers discuss and present the information together to the clients. In complex family dynamic cases a full team meeting can be a cost effective way to help the family move forward.
Pet Peeve #5: Not Signing a Participation Agreement The Participation Agreement is the constitution and foundation of a collaborative file. It establishes the rules of engagement and a commitment to staying out of court. An unsigned participation agreement means a lingering fear of litigation.
Tip # 4: Use Divorce Coaches and use them often The process of divorce and separation is emotional. It requires difficult conversations and unpacking complex feelings. Divorce Coaches can help to navigate the emotional process involved in divorce and separation by ensuring that needs, concerns and feelings (including anger and fear) are both expressed and contained in a safe and respectful manner which can help towards settlement and ultimately helping the clients move towards a successful transition.
Tip # 5: Use Financial Neutrals and use them often Ditto with the coaches. The process of divorce and separation is an economic adjustment too. It also requires difficult conversations about money, support, assets, etc.. Financial Neutrals can not only help gather, summarize, and analyze financial data, that can be instrumental in files with complex money issues.
Tip #6: Try Working With Someone New Everyone gets comfortable and it's easy to work in the same, familiar teams, however if we want to promote the growth of collaborative practice, working with new professionals and expanding our membership is vital. Jon’s tip was that when you are asked for a few names to refer the other spouse to, add a person to that list you have not worked with before.