ILNews

Collaborative divorce offers closure for clients, demands less attorney time

Jenny Montgomery
January 18, 2012
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Indiana Lawyer Focus

Holly Wanzer remembers a client whose marriage of more than three decades was ending due to her husband’s infidelity. Because Indiana is a state with no-fault divorce, the painful reasons behind the woman’s broken marriage would be of no relevance in a courtroom. But in collaborative divorce, clients can speak candidly about how they’re feeling.

Gathered in a room with her future ex-husband, his attorney and Wanzer, Wanzer’s client confronted her spouse. “She felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off her shoulders because she got to say, ‘You hurt me; this changed my life,’ and he listened,” Wanzer said.

divorce Elisabeth Edwards, left, and Holly Wanzer say collaborative divorce works for clients who hope to avoid the courtroom. (IL Photo/Eric Learned )

Wanzer and law partner Elisabeth Edwards say that one of the reasons they practice collaborative divorce at Wanzer Edwards is because of the closure it offers clients. But they also enjoy simply practicing law in a different way.

More time, less paperwork

Spouses using collaborative divorce hire their own collaborative law attorneys and sign a pledge stating that they will not attempt to take the case to court before a collaborative agreement is reached. Working as a group, they hash out the conditions of their divorce. If either party breaks the agreement barring litigation, their collaborative attorneys must withdraw and the parties must hire new lawyers. That provision means clients are generally motivated to make negotiations work.

Edwards said meetings with the parties and lawyers are usually two or three hours long, and Wanzer said she’s seen some divorce cases come to resolution in two meetings.

“For litigation, if you involved the court, you’re doing really well to get in and out in eight or nine months,” Edwards said.

Both Edwards and Wanzer said they enjoy not being at the mercy of the court’s calendar and that any deadlines they have are self-imposed. Collaborative divorce also eliminates the time that would be spent preparing paperwork.

“It’s much more efficient – it’s the way I like to lawyer,” Wanzer said. “I have a piece of information and I’m going to give it to you so we’re both on the same page, instead of I’m going to wait for it to be asked for and then only give you what you asked for – those kinds of litigation games disappear in the collaborative process.”

Catherine Stafford, managing attorney at Stafford Law Office in Bloomington, said the collaborative divorce cases she has handled have generally been resolved in two to four meetings – but those meetings are sometimes contentious.

“Those meetings can be very tense. It’s not an unstressful situation,” Stafford said. “However, it cuts through a lot of layers of negotiation with everyone there in the same room. We can just say what needs to be said in a meeting rather than file a lot of pleadings about it.”

Stafford, Wanzer and Edwards are all mediators, and many of the skills they learned in that capacity apply to collaborative law, too. But a key difference between mediation and collaborative divorce is that in mediation, the mediator is not representing the interests of either party, but rather serving as a neutral third party.

The agreement reached in collaborative divorce must be submitted to the court, which issues the final divorce decree. If at some point in the future either party should violate the agreement, the other could pursue a remedy in court.

Wanzer said that people tend to take more ownership of the results they achieve in collaborative divorce as opposed to court because agreements decided in court are usually handed down from a judge.

“The prospect of standing before a stranger, a judge, and letting that stranger make a decision about where my child is going to live and what my child’s schedule is going to be would terrify me and be terribly uncomfortable,” Wanzer said.

A slow-growing trend

Stafford said the practice of collaborative law has existed for about 20 or 25 years – but it’s just beginning to catch on in Indiana.

catherine stafford Stafford

“You’re always hesitant to pick up each new fad as it comes along,” Stafford said. “It’s been really effective – I was a little dubious at first.”

She attended a two-day training in 2008 hosted by the St. Joseph County Bar Association to learn how to practice collaborative law, but such trainings aren’t always easy to find in Indiana. Wanzer and Edwards said they hope to see training offered this summer and said the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals lists training opportunities farther from home, such as the 2nd annual IACP Institute, which will be offered in Phoenix this March.

In order to successfully orchestrate a collaborative divorce, each party must have an attorney who is trained in collaborative law, and that can be a problem in some parts of the state where the practice hasn’t taken off. Stafford said she knows of six other attorneys in her area who also practice collaborative law.

“I think that maybe some attorneys are scared of the process because they think it might put them out of a job, or that there’s going to be less work for them to do,” Edwards said. “I think that so many clients want the assurance that the threat of court is off the table.” Wanzer explained the importance of preserving the family relationship.

“Of course, I represent a client, but at the end of the day these people need to be co-parents together long after attorneys have left their lives. And I’m not doing my job, in my opinion, if I’m employing a scorched earth approach that’s going to ruin that co-parenting relationship,” Wanzer said.•

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  1. The child support award is many times what the custodial parent earns, and exceeds the actual costs of providing for the children's needs. My fiance and I have agreed that if we divorce, that the children will be provided for using a shared checking account like this one(http://www.mediate.com/articles/if_they_can_do_parenting_plans.cfm) to avoid the hidden alimony in Indiana's child support guidelines.

  2. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is a Latin legal phrase, meaning "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." The maxim signifies the belief that justice must be realized regardless of consequences.

  3. Indiana up holds this behavior. the state police know they got it made.

  4. Additional Points: -Civility in the profession: Treating others with respect will not only move others to respect you, it will show a shared respect for the legal system we are all sworn to protect. When attorneys engage in unnecessary personal attacks, they lose the respect and favor of judges, jurors, the person being attacked, and others witnessing or reading the communication. It's not always easy to put anger aside, but if you don't, you will lose respect, credibility, cases, clients & jobs or job opportunities. -Read Rule 22 of the Admission & Discipline Rules. Capture that spirit and apply those principles in your daily work. -Strive to represent clients in a manner that communicates the importance you place on the legal matter you're privileged to handle for them. -There are good lawyers of all ages, but no one is perfect. Older lawyers can learn valuable skills from younger lawyers who tend to be more adept with new technologies that can improve work quality and speed. Older lawyers have already tackled more legal issues and worked through more of the problems encountered when representing clients on various types of legal matters. If there's mutual respect and a willingness to learn from each other, it will help make both attorneys better lawyers. -Erosion of the public trust in lawyers wears down public confidence in the rule of law. Always keep your duty to the profession in mind. -You can learn so much by asking questions & actively listening to instructions and advice from more experienced attorneys, regardless of how many years or decades you've each practiced law. Don't miss out on that chance.

  5. Agreed on 4th Amendment call - that was just bad policing that resulted in dismissal for repeat offender. What kind of parent names their boy "Kriston"?

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