Pro Bono Collaborative Divorce: Helping Others While Helping Yourself by Adam B. Cordover

by Guest Blogger August 26, 2014

Are you a newly-trained Collaborative practitioner who is frustrated? Have you gone through basic training, joined the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, and paid membership dues into a local practice group, yet you have not had your first Collaborative case?  Unfortunately, not getting that first shot can be self-perpetuating: Potential clients don’t hire you for Collaborative work because they don’t want to be guinea pigs, and you stop talking to potential clients about Collaborative work because it’s not getting you anywhere. 

This cycle is very much akin to applying for your first legal, financial, or mental health position: Potential employers don’t hire you because you don’t have any work experience, and you can’t get any work experience because potential employers are not hiring you. To remedy this situation, many job seekers end up building their resume by doing volunteer work or interning for little to no pay. Building a sustainable Collaborative practice is no different. 

In Florida, Practice Groups such as Next Generation Divorce and the Collaborative Family Law Institute have developed pro bono programs that have three basic objectives: (i) provide Collaborative services to those who might not otherwise be able to afford them; (ii) help professionals gain valuable Collaborative experience; and (iii) raise public awareness of the Collaborative option. Each program started with some committed professionals who set an appointment to speak with a legal aid representative to see if they were willing to partner up. The Tampa program is also beginning to cultivate relationships with religious institutions to serve as sources of cases. Other programs around Florida are even working with charities, such as United Way, or universities to bring Collaborative legal clinics to law schools.  

Many times, the legal aid society or other institution will screen to see whether potential clients financially qualify for pro bono services. Generally, those who make less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines will qualify. 

Practitioners need to ensure that legal aid societies do not over-screen for content of cases: Like many others who are not familiar with Collaborative Practice, staff at legal aid programs may think it is only for “uncontested” cases or cases with very few or uncomplicated issues. Of course, we know that the whole purpose of the Collaborative process is to help the clients settle issues privately and respectfully, and that the process may not even be necessary for truly uncontested cases. It may be helpful to do a mini-training for the legal aid society, or invite them to a basic training and waive costs. 

Collaborative pro bono programs should be used as a teaching tool not only for the core team, but for others as well. We have found that clients do not like to be observed or shadowed, but they do like to be assisted (especially for free), and so we bring in Collaborative Assistants (other non-paid trained Collaborative professionals). The Collaborative Assistants attend the various meetings, take notes or minutes, and complete administrative tasks such as making copies.  This reduces distractions and frees up the core Collaborative team to focus on the clients. After successfully using the concept of Collaborative Assistants in pro bono cases, many of us have begun insisting that non-paid Collaborative Assistants join us in our full fee cases. 

Another strategy for helping more professionals gain more experience in collaborative cases is co-counseling (or co-facilitating or “co-financialing”) in pro bono matters.  For those attorneys who have associates, this concept works naturally.  Tasks are divided, and the client gets two legal minds rather than one.  The most advantageous part of doubling up is on the financial side, where you might have an accountant and a financial advisor combining their skillsets and knowledge bases to be a Super Neutral Financial Professional.

And so the pro bono programs have allowed us to experiment with various structures and ideas and develop best practices in our paying cases. In Florida, the standard Collaborative model that we use involves two attorneys, a neutral facilitator/mental health professional, and a neutral financial professional. We are now in discussions about testing out the role of the Child Specialist, or attempting a 2-Coach model case.

We have already successfully tried out a streamlined structure where (with preparation) all issues, including parenting issues, were settled in a single four-hour meeting. We have also tried out different seating configurations (clients sitting next to one another rather than on opposite sides of the table) and use of technology (i.e., using freeconferencecall.com, Google Hangouts, and Google Docs for cases where one of the clients reside out of the area), and thus we added to our Collaborative toolboxes.

The Collaborative pro bono programs have allowed us to build relationships with the media (they latched on to Florida's First Pro Bono Collaborative case) and other institutions and even promote Collaborative Practice for our full fee cases in television and radio segments. This has planted the seeds of Collaborative Practice in the public consciousness, and slowly but surely Florida professionals are beginning to get more inquiries where potential clients ask about the Collaborative process.

If you do not have a pro bono program in your community, start one. The International Academy of Collaborative Professionals has an entire edition of the Collaborative Review dedicated to providing pro bono and reduced rate programs, and you can get some wonderful ideas from the magazine. 

Also, if you have a pro bono program in your area, I’d be interested to hear in the comments section below whether and how it has helped your Collaborative community grow. Further, what lessons, if any, have you learned from the pro bono cases and applied to your full fee cases?

Take your Collaborative career into your own hands, and gain invaluable experience while providing pro bono Collaborative services.

*This article was inspired by a presentation at the Second Annual Conference of the Collaborative Family Law Counsel of Florida. Many thanks to the hard work and passion of my co-presenters: Joryn Jenkins, Esq., Lisette Beraja, LMFT, and Rhonda Goodman, Esq.

Comments (1) -

attyjessicalevy@yahoo.com
attyjessicalevy@yahoo.com
5/22/2015 10:10:37 AM #

Thank you so much for writing this inspirational article.  I am new to Collaborative Lawyering, and I have not yet completed my basic training.  However, once I do, I will definitely look into the possibility of starting a Collaborative Lawyering Pro Bono program in my area (Western MA).  I will also check out the materials you suggested, and I will contact you once I've begun the process.....

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

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Be-Fulfilled | Confession: Letting Go Is Not as Easy as Elsa Says by Randolph (Tré) Morgan III

Confession: Letting Go Is Not as Easy as Elsa Says by Randolph (Tré) Morgan III

by Guest Blogger July 15, 2014

One of the key skills to being a good Collaborative attorney is “letting go.” In order to let a client and a couple self-determine their resolution, we have to let go of the idea of winning and losing, the idea of what “should” happen, and the idea that the “law” is the right answer for everyone, among other traditional (but fading) lawyer memes.

One thing that I didn't realize when I began my Collaborative practice is that operating outside of these ingrained lines would occasionally make me twitchy. After years of Collaborative Practice, and shelves of cases, I still struggle with this. Sometimes letting go is still hard, even though I've watched Frozen about 50 times with my daughters and can recite every word to the song.

If my client makes an informed decision to do something that is unusual, or that lies outside the bounds of their BATNA, then I sometimes hear the old school paternalistic voice saying, “They’re not doing what you would do or what the law would do, so it must be wrong.”

Of course, one of the reasons is that I have visions of that client calling me in a few years to say that they regret a decision that they made. I don’t want them to blame the Collaborative process for their retrospective regret. Or, worse yet, blame me for “letting” them make an agreement that they now regret.

The other reason is that I wonder what other non-collaborative attorneys think about agreements that lie, at least in part, outside of what an old school litigator would “allow.” Will they think less of Collaborative attorneys? Will they write off the Collaborative process as producing “weird” agreements or not protecting clients?  Will they blame the Collaborative process when a client comes to see them for an enforcement issue and there are non-traditional terms in the agreement? 

As an example, I have clients that decide to include separate property in the marital property division. I have clients that consider paying alimony beyond their spouse’s remarriage. I have clients that agree to pay alimony despite their spouse’s affair, which in North Carolina, bars alimony. I have clients that refuse alimony or child support though they are clearly eligible for support and know it.

In my area, those provisions are not the norm for non-collaborative attorneys (which is to say most other family law attorneys) in our area. They would at least raise an eyebrow, or trigger a Dr. Evil pinky finger to the corner of the mouth. Certainly some old school attorneys would flatly refuse to let a client choose some of those options no matter how well though out. That form of legal service is on its way out. But, what client wants to hear “Your attorney should never have let you agree to that” or “This is why the Collaborative process is a bad idea”, even if it is poor advice? Cue the sharks with lasers. 

Maybe I’m the only one that thinks about this issue, but I suspect that I’m not. 

A local mediator likes to say, “Once a client makes an informed decision, you have to respect it.” And I have come to follow that principle in believing that informed clients are capable of determining what will work for them, and, importantly, of dealing with the consequences if they do not like their choices in retrospect.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “How much pain have cost us the evils that never happened!” So far, my worst fears have not come to pass.  But, I have had clients that took informed and calculated risks in agreements that I would not have taken, and that did not work out for them the way they hoped. And I recognized (probably well after my colleagues) a rising anxiety in myself in those cases. 

I’m still not sure what to do with that anxiety. My reaction is to use that anxiety as a signal that I need to have one more conversation with my client about whatever decision makes me nervous. Not to talk them out of anything, but to make sure that they see things clearly and are making an informed decision. 

I’m not sure that there is anything else to be done with the feeling. But, I’d be interested to know if anyone else experiences similar thoughts and how they use them to benefit clients and the process.

Comments (2) -

bakoppe@gmail.com
bakoppe@gmail.com
9/27/2014 5:28:34 PM #

Your angst points out a huge philosophical difference between attorneys and social workers (perhaps all mental health practitioners). The lawyer's role is to advocate for his client (even the French word for lawyer is "avocat.") While social workers certainly advocate for their clients as well, we do it in a very different way. One of the basic principles of the NASW Code of Ethics is the right to "self-determination," or the right of clients to make their own decisions.

This is usually a major challenge for new social workers, who want to "save their clients" and thus protect them from making bad decisions. It has taken me many years to learn, and I sometimes have to re-learn the message, that clients have the right to make "bad" decisions. My job is to offer them options, educate them about the implications of each option, but ultimately to leave the choice up to them.

It is sometimes so hard to stand back and watch, particularly when we can envision the negative ramifications that will result from their decisions. But it is the ultimate respect for our clients to truly grant them the right to make their own decisions, even against our advice. In essence, isn't this what CP is all about? It's about them.

It sounds like your philosophy is much closer to that of NASW, rather than the ABA. I applaud you for sharing your angst, which sounds like it's directed more toward the reactions of other lawyers or clients whose decisions have gone bad. This sounds like a rich discussion for any collaborative group.
Barbara

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

lbroussard@fdva.net
lbroussard@fdva.net
4/19/2015 12:50:13 PM #

Tre,

Thank you for sharing this perspective.  It's very insightful, reflects your self-awareness, and is something that I intend to share with our training faculty as we prepare for future Collaborative trainings.

Lonnie

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

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Our Featured Bloggers will rotate over time. If you are interested in becoming a Featured Blogger and posting regularly, please contact us at info@be-fulfilled.org. We also welcome periodic submissions from Guest Bloggers. If you have a post to share as a guest, please send your post to us at info@be-fulfilled.org.

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