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Reaching an agreement at the round table

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Settling a dispute through the collaborative process may begin with the shape of the negotiating table.

The common image of a divorce positions the clients with their attorneys sitting on opposite sides of a rectangular table. Often, it is an adversarial situation where the lawyers do most of the talking.

Conversely, the collaborative law process might involve a change as simple as seating the parties at a round table. The attorneys might sit next to the clients they are not representing and talk to the clients directly. Other professionals from the mental health and financial services fields might also be part of the conversation.

reichert-melanie.jpg Reichert

Family law attorneys who practice collaborative law say the discussions at the round table yield substantially better results than those across the rectangular table.

“I think the clients come away feeling better about the whole experience if they have an active part in it,” said John Brandt, family law attorney at Beckman Lawson LLP in Fort Wayne. “They’re part of the team solution.”

Collaborative law dates back to 1990, and while it is widely practiced in other states and countries, it is slowly gaining acceptance in Indiana. Although it is akin to mediation, the collaborative method is distinctive in that the clients both have attorneys instead of a single lawyer acting as a neutral facilitator. Parties usually meet a couple of times rather than working out an agreement in a single session.

One obstacle to its growth in the Hoosier state is the relatively small pool of professionals trained in collaborative practice techniques. Another obstacle may be skepticism that arises from the absence of rules promulgated by either the courts or the Legislature regarding the method.

However, the obstacles will likely be overpowered by the advocates of collaborative law. Attorneys who employ the method in their practices talk about being convinced of the merits from the first time they encountered the technique.

Melanie Reichert, attorney at Broyles Kight Ricafort P.C. in Indianapolis, was first trained in collaborative law in 2005 and was among the small group of lawyers who formed the first board for the Central Indiana Association of Collaborative Practitioners in 2011. Currently, she is president of the association.

Based on her experience, Reichert said just about every kind of family law case could be handled through collaboration. Even situations that involve allegations of child abuse or substance abuse and cases that revolve around the hot-button issues, such as one spouse moving out-of-state and high-asset or low-asset divorces, can all be settled at the round table.

“It’s working because people are sitting down in a room and talking about the issues rather than hiding behind their lawyers,” Reichert said.

Hard work for a better ending

A 2010 survey by the International Academy of Collaborative Practice examined 933 cases that were handled with the collaborative model. The study found that 86 percent of the cases ended with a settlement agreement and another 2 percent of divorcing couples reconciled.

steinmetz-deetta.jpg Steinmetz

Although collaborative law has had success, it is not an easy process. The issues that need to be addressed can be very difficult to discuss, bringing up anger and despair. Yet, the clients are required to be respectful of each other, communicate in a mature manner and listen to the opinions and advice of everyone involved in the session.

All the hard work needed to reach a collaborative settlement, attorneys say, is worth it.

“One of the surprises for me was just how significant the difference is between the experience the clients have and the way the clients feel at the end of the collaborative process compared with the way the clients feel at the end of the traditional divorce process,” said Amy Stewart, attorney at Mallor Grodner LLP in Indianapolis.

Traditional divorce often makes the relationship and the communication between the husband and wife worse. The process can entail the parties showing their opposing spouses in the harshest light possible and maneuvering to get their fair share as well as part of the other’s share.

Once the battle is done, many couples have to figure out on their own how to work together to parent their children.

While watching that scenario play out over and over again in her more than 20 years as a family law attorney, Deetta Steinmetz thought there had to be a better way for couples to divorce. She found that better way in collaborative law and is now expanding her mediation practice at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic to include it.

Within the collaborative setting, the clients identify their common interests and focus on finding ways to meet those interests.

Through the collaborative process, Steinmetz said, a couple has the opportunity to establish a new family dynamic.

Governing rules

Unlike mediation, which is governed by the rules of alternative dispute resolution, collaborative law has no formal rules or guidelines. The IACP does have practice and ethics standards for collaborative law attorneys.

Also, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, also know as the Uniform Law Commission, crafted the Uniform Collaborative Law Rules/Act as model legislation for states to adopt. However, in 2011, the American Bar Association House of Delegates voted against approving it.

Collaborative law practitioners support the institution of rules over the technique whether established by the Indiana Supreme Court or the Indiana General Assembly. Rules would give more legitimacy to the practice and provide lawyers with clear guidelines, Reichert said.

A hallmark of collaborative law is the agreement worked out by the parties and their attorneys before the process begins. Often these contracts include many ADR principles, but the documents cannot cover every issue or situation that could arise during the process. Having set rules or guidelines, Reichert said, would help attorneys handle the unexpected.

Legitimacy could also foster acceptance. The divorce agreements that result from the collaborative process can be creative and put forth terms that are, for example, different than those outlined in the state’s parenting time guidelines.

Consequently, courts may take a closer look at the final divorce decree. Some judges, Reichert said, are concerned about agreements that do not follow the parenting time rules. However, she continued, caselaw not only encourages settlement of disputes, it also supports the decision of the parties to agree to terms not normally in an order.

In addition, the contracts signed at the beginning of the collaborative process have caused concern.

A key component of those contracts is the stipulation to focus on the negotiations and not go to court or threaten to go to court. If the couple does decide to proceed with litigation, the attorneys must withdraw and not provide any representation.

The Colorado Bar Association issued an opinion in 2007 that held the pre-session collaborative agreements violated the state’s rules of professional conduct. In part, the bar association was worried the terms of the contract would impair a lawyer’s ability to recommend all the legal alternatives.

A short time later, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility rejected that reasoning. The committee concluded the legal representation is not hindered if the clients are well informed and have consented to the attorneys’ limited duties.

“I think collaborative law will gain support in Indiana. I think it will become one of the first options people look to when they have a family law issue,” Reichert said. “Collaborative law is not right for every case and every person. It’s one more tool in the toolbox.”•

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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