In a recent collaborative divorce case, we learned from the clients that a tax liability of about $60,000 would be owed if they did not get their divorce by the end of the year. It was only a few days before Christmas and past the informal deadline set by the court for submitting final documents for a 2013 divorce. Adding to the challenge, my client had just changed her mind about a key provision in the financial settlement. I had already prepared and circulated a draft of the agreement which had been reviewed by our clients and an expert who had helped them with planning and financial issues concerning their special needs child. Now it all seemed to be unraveling and I fought against the urge to find someone to blame and prove it wasn’t me (I bet these thoughts crossed the minds of the clients and others on the team). Instead, we got to work on the problems as a team. The attorneys met with the expert concerning the special needs child and reviewed her suggested changes, made phone calls to our clients for approval, and drafted the new changes into the agreement. The child specialist who had worked with the clients during the collaborative process reviewed the suggested changes and made adjustments in the parenting plan which would be part of the final legal document. We also had some preliminary conversations with our clients about the proposed change my client wanted in the financial settlement and shared our clients’ views. The proposed change concerned the timing of the sale of real estate and the neutral financial expert who had worked with us during the collaborative process had been contacted about this issue. We checked calendars with the clients and the financial neutral and scheduled a meeting–unfortunately, the husband’s attorney was not available at the only time which worked for the rest of the team and the clients. We agreed to meet and the attorney for the husband would be available during the meeting by phone and email. We also needed to get a judge assigned to our case. The Joint Petition, which had been prepared in the beginning of the collaborative process, was filed with the court, which got us an assigned judge. The attorneys discussed strategy and we agreed that the husband’s attorney would take the lead in the calls requesting an expedited court process. There were a number of complications, including the fact that the judge was leaving on vacation that day. I listened in on the calls and was happy to hear that the judge’s clerk, after consulting with the judge, agreed to email the agreement to the judge once it was filed and the judge agreed to review it while on vacation. We still needed a final agreement on the financial settlement. At the meeting the next day, the financial neutral took the lead and discussed the consequences of the proposed change, which would also affect the funding for education for their children. Options were considered and discussed. I was present at the meeting but had agreed on a ground rule with the other attorney that I would refer to her all questions of substance from her client. As we developed the terms of the final agreement, the substance was shared with that attorney in phone calls and emails. I prepared the final draft of the agreement with the new terms, the clients and attorneys (one by email) signed, and it was filed with the court that day after an all morning meeting. The judge signed the final document and the clients were divorced in 2013. The key reasons for our success in working through the challenges: 1) The clients and professionals focused on solving the problems rather than assigning blame for the problems. 2) Clients and professionals relied on the strengths and expertise of different members of the team. 3) Trust among professionals allowed for flexibility and candor in the process. 4) Clients kept uppermost in mind the big picture goals for the family as a whole.
Stu Webb, who thought about collaborative divorce first in the early 1990’s, and is considered the founder of collaborative law, loves jazz. So do I. I listened to my 9th year of fabulous jazz music at the Detroit International Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, and also listen to jazz at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. I have also been healed by a medical team at the Mayo Clinic in the 1980’s. I see a link between these practices –it’s collaboration. What makes collaborative team divorce like jazz and team medical practice? 1) Specialized trained professionals who bring unique skills to the team. In collaborative practice, the mental health professionals, financial professionals, and attorneys all have received unique training and experience. Jazz musicians–singers, sax players, trumpeters, drummers and others have all been trained in their own instruments. In the medical model, doctors specialize in different areas, nurses, and technicians have unique expertise. 2) The added value of collaboration by a team. Their unique skills and voices coming together give an added value, advice and music that could not happen without all of them together. For me, the Mayo medical model diagnosed a problem that required a detailed history of my several generation’s family medical history, plus specialists’ expertise and brainstorming together. Also, creative experiment with my diet (this was the 1980’s when diet and nutrition were not generally regarded as a mainstream medical approach). 3) Improvisation and creativity. Jazz musicians improvise, connect and play off each other in ways that could not happen with orchestrated works or solo compositions. Collaborative practitioners improvise based upon the immediate needs and realities of the families and children, and listen to the other professionals, connect with them, and create new options for the family. Medical teams creatively experiment, in my case with my diet, and find new solutions to medical issues. This is the power and music of collaborative practice.