Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Practice Collaborative Law?

I was recently asked why a lawyer would choose to practice collaborative law. I cannot speak for all collaborative lawyers, but I can tell you about my own experience. When I was in law school, I had no idea of the lack of job satisfaction I would encounter in the practice of law. But, well into my legal career, after a hard-fought win in the Supreme Court of British Columbia or the Queen's Bench in Calgary, I found myself plunging into despair. By the time I reached the women lawyers Barrister's Room from the courtroom, before I had even removed my gown, any elation at proving my case and doing a good job, had evaporated. And this was after a win. On the days that I didn't win, it was even worse. To be a party to a courtroom blood bath where there are no winners, where each party is bankrupt, financially and emotionally and physically, gave me no job satisfaction. For the first 15 years of my life as a lawyer, I often found myself sitting across the desk from people who were at their worst hour, feeling like I had nothing to offer but poison. This was especially the case after 1993 when I moved to Nelson BC and began to practice more family law. These legal battles often took years. Often, beaten down and feeling that I had to quit the practice of law, I sought out mentors who encouraged me to battle it out, who told me that my presence was necessary in the courtroom, that change is always difficult, that my voice was important on the front. But I felt like a fish out of water in the courtroom, despite my appearance, all dressed and ready for the performance. I am a yogi. I believe in contributing to the strength and wellness of my community. The microcosm of Nelson accentuated even more the harmful effects of litigation on the community than had been apparent in the big city. The purpose of a judge is to decide who is right and who is wrong; who wins and who loses; who is at fault and who is not. Lawyers are trained to "position" their clients into the best position they could expect a judge to determine on a good day in court, and then drive their clients to those positions. From the outset, a lawyer is gathering information from you to prove your case. This is becasue the lawyer thinks his or her job is to prove you are right. However, I have never felt that my job as a lawyer was to prove that you are right. My motto has been, do you want to be happy or do you want to be right? I have always felt that my job was to help you come to a resolution of your legal issues. Our court system is about proving who is right. In marriage uncoupling, great emotional or psychological issues arise, but the legal issues are the same for everyone, and there are only two legal issues: children and money. Forcing couples to take the question of children and property division into a courtroom, where the game is to prove who is right and who is wrong, is a travesty. This is more glaringly obvious if the couple has children, for the court system forces the parents to prove the other wrong in order to resolve the legal issues of developing a parenting plan and figuring out child support. This blows the ability of the parents to effectively co-parent into the future out of the water. This, in turn, causes our whole society to become weak since there is ample research to show that children who are products of an acrimonious parental uncoupling are likely to suffer great handicaps as adults (The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein). Personally, I suffered with the decision to stay or not to stay in law. I am not alone in this. The Lawyer's Assistance Program of BC offers regular seminars on "What to do with your Law Degree Other than Practice Law". There are many depressed lawyers out there. And no wonder. You would be depressed too if you had to spend all of your time on a battlefield or making the ammunition to harm children in your own community.
So, when the concept of Collaborative Practice crossed my path one day in 2002, I grasped on to it like the saver it is. I have been dedicated to bringing collaborative practice to my home community ever since. I am a very active member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, and I frequently work with members of the Collaborative Law Group of Vancouver. There are no other practicing collaborative lawyers in the East or West Kootenays, although I have not given up attempting to bring them into the fold. There are so few lawyers in the rural areas of BC that the lawyers have more work than they can handle. They don't want to get retrained to do something else. So I continue to communicate with lawyers throughout BC and Alberta, and the law schools, too, about the benefits of developing a collaborative practice. Collaborative lawyers come from the Okanagan and Vancouver to work on a team with me here in Nelson. As a collaborative lawyer, I feel that I am a healer instead of a harmer. I see my job as taking the hand of my uncoupling client and helping him or her cross treacherous waters to the other shore, I place the person on solid ground so he or she gains traction to move forward in life. It doesn't matter whether he or she knows how dangerous and treacherous the waters are - it is enough that I have the experience to know the dangerous territory through which we pass together. In a collaborative practice, I have the opportunity to hold a sacred safe space in my office, a place for the couple to communicate, to forgive, to end conflict despite emotional turmoil. I give a workshop at the local college entitled "Spiritual Divorce" in which I invite couples to explore the law of forgiveness, the law of surrender and the law of acceptance while they are exploring the laws of family property division and child support. I love working on a team with the other professionals - lawyers, child specialists, psychologists and financial planners. I love combining my legal education and experience with my colleague from the outset of a case for the mutual benefit of our clients, instead of paring my great skill against my learned friend's expertise. My office staff suggest to a new caller that he or she bring in the spouse for the initial interview so that they both learn the four routes to a Separation Agreement and the likely time and costs of each route before either takes any action. Most lawyers won't see a couple together because of a perceived conflict of interest. However, I am not giving advice at these initial consultations, but rather, I am giving information so I do not place myself in a conflict of interest, I do not gather "evidence" from either spouse at the initial consultation. After these initial interviews, the couple is often very grateful and I frequently get told "Thank you so much, Susan. I feel so much better now that I have this information. I can see there is a way out." Hearing this makes me feel useful. Being a collaborative lawyer makes me a beneficial contributing member of my community and a better person. These are some of the reasons why I choose to practice collaborative law.