I hope that young children were not still up and watching the *Academy Awards broadcast when Will Smith got out of his seat, walked up the concourse, and forcefully slapped Chris Rock for making a poor joke at the expense of his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.  But even if children didn’t watch it live, they are likely still being exposed to the ongoing coverage and analysis of this startling event on social media and mainstream media.  Disagreement abounds over which man was most in the wrong.  Some posters and oped writers try to justify each man’s actions.  There have been thoughtful critiques about toxic masculinity in our culture, and how it inevitably leads to violence of one kind or another. Many believe Chris Rock was bullying Jada Pinkett Smith by publicly mocking her bald head, especially given her alopecia.  Some respond that comedians insulting celebrities at “star-studded events” and roasts has become something of the norm and is to be expected.  Some say Will Smith’s retaliation was also bullying behavior, since Smith was trained to box like a professional for the film Ali and is much bigger and stronger than Rock.  But others respond that his response was justified to “protect” his wife. (I confess, I thought Pinkett Smith’s grimace of disgust and exaggerated eye roll at the weak joke was a pretty potent response in and of itself). What does this whole event model for our children, who emulate adult behavior?  Is mocking others, especially for things they can’t control, ever justified?  Does saying “Just kidding!” after a cruel remark make it okay?  Should bystanders go along by joining the mocking laughter, or do they have a responsibility to call out bullying behavior? Is lashing out aggressively after a perceived put-down ever justified?  Does being “in the heat of the moment and not thinking clearly” make an impulsive violent response, okay?  Should bystanders go along by saying nothing, or do they have a responsibility to call out violent behavior? What does this event say about how women and girls should expect to be treated?  In the Me Too era, a time when native women have disappeared in shocking numbers, when human trafficking and domestic violence are still huge social problems, we know that women do need the strong protection of laws and social norms.  Is this kind of protection the same or different than what happened at the Oscars? If you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch the documentary “When We Were Bullies.”  This film was also featured briefly at the Academy Awards as a nominee for best short documentary.  Ellen Bruno, the creator of the masterful film Split about the children of divorce was a creative consultant for this film, which is extremely well done.  It focuses on a 5th grade bullying incident and the lingering effects, 50 years later, on those who participated.  Like this essay, it raises important questions and examines context and perspective, but does not aim for simplistic resolutions. As parents and adults who care about children, we need to have open conversations with them, and ask curious questions about bullying behavior vs. respectful behavior and the difference between control and power.  We need to ask ourselves what it really means to create safety for others, and what responsibility we all share when safety is violated.  And we need to always be aware that the most powerful tool in the adult toolkit is modeling the behavior we want our children to emulate and taking responsibility rather than blaming others for any time we (as humans) fall off the high road. *Since this article was written, Will Smith has apologized publicly for his inexcusable behavior at the Academy Awards ceremony.  He has been banned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Awards ceremony for 10 years. Author: Deborah Clemmensen, M.Eq., L.P. is a Neutral Child and Family Specialist in Collaborative Practice and Family Law deborah.clemmensen@gmail.com
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Sandy Keith
            Thirty years ago, in 1990, a family lawyer in Minneapolis named Stu Webb had an idea.  He thought the idea was good enough to share with the Minnesota Supreme Court Justice at the time, “Sandy” Keith.  Stu’s letter of February 14, 1990, to Chief Justice Keith starts out: Dear Sandy, I met you at a party . . . several years ago. Stu did not even know Sandy Keith!  But undaunted, Stu plows ahead: I think I’ve come up with a new wrinkle that I’d like to share with you.  One of the aspects of mediation that I feel is a weakness is that it basically leaves out input by the lawyer at the early stages [of the mediation process]. . ..  By that I don’t mean adversarial, contentious lawyering, but the analytical, reasoned ability to solve problems and generate creative alternatives and create a positive context for settlement.  …[Y]ou and I have both experienced, I’m sure, those occasional times, occurring usually by accident, when in the course of attempting to negotiate a family law settlement, we find ourselves in a conference with the opposing counsel, and perhaps the respective clients, where the dynamics were such that in a climate of positive energy, creative alternatives were presented.  In that context, everyone contributed to a final settlement that satisfied all concerned—and everyone left the conference feeling high energy, good feelings and satisfaction. More than likely, the possibility for a change in the way the parties related to each other in the future may have greatly increased.  As a result, the lawyers may also develop a degree of trust between them that might make future dealings more productive. So, my premise has been:  Why not create this settlement climate deliberately?  . . . I would do this by creating a coterie of lawyers who would agree to take cases . . . for settlement only.  . . . I call the attorney in this settlement model a collaborative attorney, practicing in that case collaborative law.  This little history might end here but Chief Justice Sandy Keith did respond to Stu’s letter(!!): Dear Stu, Many thanks for one of the most thoughtful letters I have received these past months.  Congratulations .  . . on the model you are setting up in the family law area.  . . . I know it will be successful.   . . . I think you have thought it through better than most attorneys and I think it is a very valid model in the family law area. Both Stu Webb and Sandy Keith were pioneers in family law practice.  Sandy was a pioneer in using a mediation process in family law; Stu was a pioneer in creating a collaborative process in family law.  Thanks to them, out-of-court processes—mediation and collaboration—are benefiting clients all over the world.  Sandy Keith—former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, former Lieutenant Governor, former State Senator, and former family law attorney—died October 3, 2020.  His support of the Collaborative process is not forgotten. Footnote from Stu Webb, 10/6/20: Here is the link to the Star Tribune Obituary of Sandy Keith, who died last Saturday, October 3 at 91!  I could say that Sandy is responsible for releasing Collaborative Law to the world!  In 1990, when I self-questioned the credibility of the concept, I wrote him a letter describing the process and, essentially, highlighting some potential advantages of it over mediation (which was his former practice specialty!)  Instead of defensively ‘shooting it down’, he Immediately sent a short note back, basically saying ‘wonderful, go for it’!  And years later, I had the honor of participating in a Collaborative Law case with him in my home office!  WHAT A GUY!! Star Tribune Obituary \Sandy Keith: https://www.startribune.com/sandy-keith-former-minnesota-supreme-court-chief-justice-dies/572638202/ About The Author Tonda Mattie, has been a Family Law attorney for over 40 years and has practiced exclusively Collaborative Family Law since 2006.  She has been involved in the Collaborative Law movement since 1992.  She has been past President and past Co-President of the Collaborative Law Institute (CLI) of Minnesota.  She has headed the CLI Training Committee as chair or co-chair since 2004.  She is engaged in the practice of her dreams using a collaborative process that 1) allows good people to be their best despite the crisis they are in; 2) is centered on the well-being of the children; 3) creates a safe environment for difficult conversations; 4) focuses on the future rather than on blame and past grievances; 5) identifies and meets the needs and interests of all family members; 6) empowers parties to control and create their own mutual settlement; and 7) creates a climate in which healing can begin to occur. Visit her website at www.mndivorce.com
question markMy husband and I were taking our kids to swimming lessons when we saw a man and woman standing outside the facility arguing.  The anger and negative energy were palpable.  While still in the parking lot, we met up with another family we know, and we exchanged uncomfortable glances as the conversation between this couple became more heated.  “Awkward,” my friend whispered. As we approached, I could hear what they were arguing about, and the expletives were flying (this is a family place, mind you, and my kids were five and two at the time – yikes!)  The woman was saying, “I don’t give a $*&^ what you think.  You can’t have that #$&* sleep over when it’s your weekend with our son.  You are such an ^*&+@!  We aren’t even divorced yet.”  My five year old glanced up at me with an odd look on his face.  Oh boy.  I wondered if they had attorneys and what process they were using. Even though I see this sort of conflict on a regular basis, it was very uncomfortable to witness.  I’m not sure if my discomfort was because I couldn’t do anything about their conflict (I was there as a mom, not a lawyer) or because my children were in earshot.  For a fleeting moment I did, however, consider going up to them.  I felt compelled to inform them there is a better way to deal with this “stuff” and that a child specialist and divorce coach could get them to a better place regarding “adult sleepovers.”  That was the lawyer in me. Since we were running a bit behind, however, the mom in me picked up my two-year-old and hurried my son through the door.  Either way, I felt bad for this couple, and even worse for their child.  I wondered how old their son was and if they had made a scene near the pool when they decided to “take it outside.”  I will never know how their divorce turned out.  I can only hope that things cooled down at some point so they could focus on co-parenting their child.  It’s understandable that emotions are highly charged during a divorce, which is the reason a divorce coach and child specialist are incredibly helpful during the process, as well as a therapist or counselor.  Stop.  Breathe.  Think.  And talk to a mental health professional.
BLD077218In the Twin Cities, many family law attorneys offer a free consultation to learn about your options.  This is a time to meet your potential new attorney and ask your questions.  The consultation can serve three main purposes. First, you can learn about your divorce options.  There are four general processes for divorce:
  1. pro se/unrepresented where you go through the process without legal guidance;
  2. mediation where a neutral third party helps you come up with the agreements;
  3. collaborative divorce where both parties commit to a respectful out of court process with lawyers and other professionals guiding the process; and
  4. litigation, the court-based traditional process.  A good consultation should educate you on all of these options.
Second, the consultation allows you to learn some basic information about the issues in a divorce.  The attorney can discuss the main legal issues that need to be decided during a case – such as child custody, parenting time, spousal maintenance, or property division.  Clients often have specific questions about these categories and what may or may not be relevant to their situation. Third, the consultation allows you to get to know someone and see if it is a good fit for legal work.  One of the most important aspects of a consultation is the opportunity for you to meet a potential attorney and see if you will be comfortable working with them. Your attorney is your guide. You may cry or express anger in front of this person – you need to feel comfortable doing so. In addition to legal adeptness and zealous advocacy, you also must be comfortable and trust your attorney. This is perhaps the most important element of the relationship. You should know that when you are just meeting an attorney for a consultation, the attorney cannot give you legal advice or answer legal questions with certainty. Because the consulting attorney does not have a client relationship, you and your spouse could meet with the attorney together. This is often a good way for you both to hear information together. When you receive the same message, you often feel less adversarial and more like you are both seeking a guide for the process. Please contact a collaborative attorney for a free consultation to learn more about your options.
173776883-chasm-man-woman-silhouette-gettyimagesUnderstanding the difference between interests and positions could make all of the difference in helping you negotiate a better outcome in your divorce. Position-Based Bargaining: Most people have a tendency to negotiate by arguing in favor of their positions. In divorce, this type of “position-based” bargaining can actually make it more difficult to get what you want. Once you and your spouse become locked into positions, the need to defend those positions can lead to a lengthy and expensive divorce. Often position based negotiations come to an end only after both parties have reached a point of physical and emotional exhaustion only to reach a “meet in the middle” agreement. One of the many problems with meeting in “the middle” is that the best solutions may have existed outside of either position. Creative negotiation that avoid positions and focus on interests can lead to outcomes that are better for both parties. Interest-Based Bargaining:   In divorce, couples start by determining their interests and look for true “win/win” scenarios. In order to appreciate how interest-based bargaining works, it is important to understand the difference between positions and interests. Positions are narrow; “win/lose” proposals can only be satisfied in one way. For example, statements such as “I want Sole custody” or “I need $5,000 per month in support” or “I must have the house” represent positions that require the other person to “lose” in order for you to win. On the other hand, “interests” (sometimes called goals) focus on big picture desires that can be satisfied in many ways. Statements such as “I want our children to be kept out of the conflict” or “I want financial stability for both homes” or “I want us to be able to communicate better in our co-parenting” are requests to have an important interest met. One of the advantages of focusing on big-picture interests is that you and your spouse are likely to have many of these interests in common. Therefore, although working on the details of how these interests can be met will still require some problem solving skills (and some bargaining) the negotiation becomes easier because you are both working toward these important common goals. Interest-based bargaining is a skill that needs to be developed over time. Divorce negotiations are usually improved when the professionals involved have significant training and experience in this method so that they can teach these skills to their clients. Most mediators and Collaborative professionals have training and experience in interest based bargaining. To locate a professional who understands this method to interview and to learn more about interest based divorce negotiation go to www.collaborativelaw.org or www.divorcechoice.com.
Divorce is unfair in that is often asks people to make some of the most important decisions in their lives at a time when they may be impaired by many emotions, including grief. Many clients experiencing divorce have described the process as feeling like dealing with a death.  It is true that no person dies, and therefore the analogy of death is not perfect, but a marriage dies and some amount of grief would seem quite natural. In addition, grieving the loss of a marriage can be complicated because there is less of a support network.  As a culture, we have learned how to help people grieve death. However, the people in your support network may not know how to help you grieve the loss of your marriage, and that can cause them to respond with either anger or avoidance instead. One of the significant trends in our society is an increased understanding of the role of hospice when someone in approaching death. Hospice occurs after all efforts to preserve life have been exhausted. At that time, the focus of the medical team and support personnel turns away from finding a medical “solution” and toward providing comfort and care and preparation for what lies ahead. It may seem odd, to think about hospice for a dying marriage, but many of the same principles may apply. If all efforts to save the marriage have been exhausted, it may be best for the legal team, as well as friends and family, to switch to providing comfort, and, perhaps, to finding time to grieve. Giving divorcing clients time to grieve, and providing resources to help them with the grief, (including options such as coaching, or divorce closure counseling), could help people make better decisions when they are ready to focus on divorce details. If you are facing divorce, and feel like you need time to grieve, it is important to select a divorce team that understands why this is important, and to fully explore your divorce options so that your emotional health can be taken into account. To learn more, go to www.collaborativelaw.org or www.divorcechoice.com.  
466121615-male-lawyer-with-documents-in-meeting-gettyimagesWhile it is possible to file for divorce in Minnesota on your own, without legal representation, it can be difficult to manage, not only legally but also emotionally. Here are some reasons to have an attorney and NOT try and represent yourself:
  • When you represent yourself, you are unable to be objective. It is hard to weigh the options and make decisions in your own best interest if you are alone.
  • While you may save in attorney’s fees, as a novice in the legal arena, you do not know what it means to file a pleading or handle a case. You may also not know that you have other options on process – a collaborative divorce or mediation may provide better outcomes.
  • When you represent yourself, there are held to the same standard as all other clients. This means that the court will have the same expectations of you as it would of a licensed attorney representing a client.
  • If there are any contentious issues, such as parenting differences, safety concerns, or financial matters, it may be important that you have the best knowledge and skills available to make sure that your needs are addressed.
Most lawsuits never go to trial; however, this does not mean that the resulting settlements are easily reached. In divorce proceedings, an experienced attorney can help you understand your process options. Collaboration may mean there is less times spent in court and more agreeable final terms.
533297511-stock-market-chart-gettyimagesThere was an interesting article in the New York Times regarding divorce statistics. It theorized many different reasons the divorce rate seems to be decreasing in the United States. Perhaps, the economic downturn has caused couples to stay married longer rather than incur divorce costs? People may be getting married less. The author suggested that perhaps certain states or counties skewed the national data, however, state-by-state and county-by-county analysis seems to imply that the divorce rate is dropping nation-wide. In reality, it does seem like the divorce rate is dropping Another divorce statistic that is often discussed is the rate of divorce in second and third marriages being significantly greater than first marriages. Like the drop in divorce rate overall, there is not necessarily an explanation for the statistics but rather a reporting of them. One potential reason for the increased divorce rate in subsequent marriages is that the later marriages are entered into without as much due diligence. People rush into later marriages for the companionship. Another theory suggests that subsequent divorces are “easier” and less daunting because the individual has already survived a divorce. Regardless the reason behind divorce statistics, the facts remain. If you are going through divorce, however, the statistics don’t mean much. Your personal experience is all that matters and knowing your options – collaborative divorce and other alternative dispute resolution processes – can help you survive and thrive through a divorce.
Most of my work as a lawyer involves representing clients in Collaborative divorces, and most of those cases involve the use of neutral experts to advise the couple on finances, child development, and communication/relationship dynamics. The idea is to provide them the best professional information in a non-adversarial setting so that they can make well-informed choices when resolving their divorce issues. Very often, the first of these professionals a couple visits will be their neutral coach/facilitator, whose responsibility, if hired, (among many others) will be to help couples appreciate where their communication styles get in the way of decision-making. I’m fortunate to have some wonderful professionals available to serve my clients in that role. In recent years, the coach I work with most often is Lee Eddison, someone who embodies the art of compassionate listening, but who doesn’t hesitate to call a spade a shovel after more nuanced attempts at guidance have been unavailing. One of the assessment tools she uses is to ask each member of the couple to say three positive things about their spouse’s parenting ability. “He doesn’t suck,” doesn’t count, either. She knows that if someone can appreciate a positive contribution to the family made by someone they dislike, there’s an excellent chance they can have an interest-based conversation en route to a resolution. That’s not to say there aren’t other bumps in the road, or good reasons to end the intimate partnership. But the ability to appreciate that duality in their partner at a time when it counts–when you’d least like to–gives that appreciation a power and a significance it won’t have later. It has proven to be a fair bellwether of success in a Collaborative process. Very few individuals who go through a divorce are all good or all bad. There’s a saying in the court system that “In criminal cases, we see bad people at their best, and in family cases we see good people at their worst.” It’s a sound bite, of course, but it’s often true. For divorcing couples who can appreciate the good things their partner has contributed, the chances of escaping the not-so-good parts without making it worse are much higher.
157522978Collaborative law is a world-wide phenomenon. Although the process originally started in Minnesota, it has now spread throughout the world.  Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know collaborative professionals from Europe, South America, Australia, and Africa. Collaborative law happens all over the world. I often find myself meeting with new potential clients and discussing the benefits of collaborative divorce. I differentiate this process from an adversarial, court process. Most importantly, I try and help potential clients understand the simplest, most elegant aspect of collaborative divorce – it just works. In many aspects of life, we try and find the “special sauce.” How do we articulate, put to words, the essence of collaborative law? What is it about collaborative law that has made it a world-wide phenomenon? Allowing clients to maintain control of the process and work in a respectful manner to find mutually-agreeable resolutions are the key tenants. But why does it work? I think the essence of collaborative law supersedes culture and language. It works all over the world because people genuinely want it to work. People want to maintain control of their family and lives after divorce. People want confidentiality and full disclosure of information, but don’t want to incur extraordinary expense. People also want a respectful process and want to maintain their own integrity throughout. Some people ask why collaborative law works? I think it makes more sense to state that collaborative law does work. In fact, it works all over the world.