In the Collaborative community there has been much discussion about which Collaborative model is most appropriate. Lawyer only models; two lawyers and one mental health professional; two lawyers and two mental health professionals; a financial specialist can be added to any model, as can a mediator and we have even seen on a single Collaborative team two lawyers, two mental health professionals as coaches, a child specialist and a financial specialist. If we are honest, aware and empathetic, as we are trained to be, which model is chosen will actually be the first collaboratively reached decision made by our clients, who have individually made their own informed decision to attempt the Collaborative Process.
Recently, in a letter to the editors of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Captain Thomas R. Beal, U.S. Navy, retired, who studied at the Naval Postgraduate School, noted that "a great lesson for all those who work with (mathematical) models as tools to understand the real world, is that models provide insights, not answers." I believe that this lesson is an important one for Collaborative professionals as well. In my ten years of Collaborative practice, I have found that each case, and every set of clients, have unique characteristics and various sets of circumstances that affect not only the course of the Collaborative process, but also the quality of the Collaborative experience (for both the clients and the professionals) and, of course, the actual level of satisfaction with the substantive outcome. Our Collaborative models provide us with insight about how to go about collaborating. I have worked with other Collaborative professionals who have allowed orthodox approaches become an end in and of themselves, with frustrated clients wondering how things ever got so bad, and the disenchanted Collaborative professionals wondering if its worth all the effort. Your model can refer to the make-up of the Collaborative team; the protocols which lay out how each professional should interact with his/her client; how, and when, the teams work together or apart; and, how the case concludes.
The Central Tenet and Core Principles
We have long understood that the central tenet of the Collaborative Process is that it is intended as a "Client's Paradigm". The process is based upon dual legal concepts called "informed consent" and "limited representation". Each client has consented to be represented by an individual attorney who will assist the separating couple while they are engaged in a working relationship designed to problem solve around a specific set to generally encountered issues. The purpose of our limited representation is to assist a separating couple collaborate. We have not been hired to litigate or further inflame, what is usually, a pre-existing adversarial relationship. After being fully informed of their process options, as every Collaborative case begins, our clients make this choice. In order to truly "collaborate" with the couple, and to advocate for our client's goals and interests, we who hold ourselves out as Collaborative Professionals, must be vigilant about our empathy for the clients’ individual, and collective, situations. Our different models provide opportunities for the development of such awareness. This does not, however, mean allowing the clients to "take over the process" inasmuch as we are the Collaborative Professionals and they are lay participants.
The clients’ frame of reference is their “real world”. In order to effectively problem solve with them (i.e.: collaborate) we need to see and understand their world(s). From that reference point, the clients can hear us. If they are not hearing us they are not getting their money’s worth. We too often forget that we have the luxury of being in a process which we can actually and, in a mindful way, control. We can speed it up; slow it down; direct the twists and turns; understand what needs to be discussed. This is what was contracted for; not some indefinable, yet definitive end (“I just want it over”) ("I just want what’s fair”). And even we, the professionals, may lapse into the comfort of thinking that the object of our game is a Separation Agreement and/or Parenting Plan. Such an attitude ignores the informed consent which was consciously, and affirmatively, granted when the clients signed the Participation Agreement.
As we begin to learn about the couple's real world, in the fishbowl known as a four-, five-or even six-way, we cannot forget that in addition to hiring us for our Collaborative skills, our limited representation requires injection of our specific legal, psychological or financial knowledge and experience into the "collaborative" conversation. This knowledge and experience, however, has is own language; a language, or code, which we cannot expect our clients to speak very fluently; especially in such stressful times.
The Essential Building Bock: Trust
The clients’ real world has not included such things as alimony, child support or mixed and marital properties. Can we expect clients to know how to problem solve using these terms? By way of example, they are instead concerned with their mother's inherited diamond ring, how will the children's expenses be paid and what will their retirement years look like. Our legal labels only confuse our clients’ reality. I have found that if we allow the process to unfold, the time spent collaborating will provide opportunity for new meaning to attach to these labels which will ultimately appear in the lawyers' documents. As we proceed through the process, the opportunities for new found understanding and comfort (with what was, at best, a foreign language) will appear. This is how we meet our clients where they are; this is how we work with them so that they can feel comfortable making decisions. This is how we build trust. IACP members, responding to the 2009 Practice Survey, identified lack of trust in the other client, or a core professional, as the most prevalent cause of “terminated” or “difficult” cases.
Whether it is the second or fifth or tenth meeting, before either client can be expected to say yes or no, the best and worst alternatives to a negotiated settlement must be measured against the goals and interests which have been identified when we are processing and understanding the clients’ real world. This is where we can provide the benefit of all our experiences in the world of domestic relations and often the time when that interest of "just wanting to get it over with” is balanced against a judgment of just how a judge might apply the relevant spousal or child support provisions. What is, or is not “fair,” to each client, will be encountered, in full transparency, at this crossroads. This is where “the test” is administered.
Thus, it remains the Clients’ Paradigm. Only then, at that appropriate point in the Collaborative Process, is a meaningful and fully informed opportunity to accept or reject an Agreement available. Getting the clients to this point is my goal for the Collaborative Process. Together, as a collaborating team, we arrive at a place where all of the information has been addressed, all of the options have been developed and all of the consequences have been fully weighed. Time has been our friend.
Does your model provide space for a Clients’ Paradigm to evolve?