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, 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) -
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.....

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