Judges, attorneys and divorcing couples are increasingly dissatisfied with the stress level, high costs
and emotional wreckage that too often occur in the adversarial process in family law. The most
popular alternative dispute resolution process has been mediation. Now a new approach is
sweeping the nation as an alternative to litigation.
Collaborative law started with Stu Webb, an attorney in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1990. Webb,
a family law attorney, was frustrated that he was not helping his clients. He thought the
adversarial system was tearing his clients apart and he did not want to be part of such a system.
He announced that he would no longer go to court and would only represent clients in a
participatory negotiation process aimed solely at creative settlements. If the process broke down,
he would refer his clients to litigation counsel and he would withdraw. In his first two years he
handled 99 cases with only four unable to reach full settlement.
Collaborative Law is a conflict resolution process guided by the uncompromising principle of a
non-litigation approach to problem solving. Going to court is not an option for resolving
differences. Eliminating the threat of litigation with its rancor and divisiveness creates a profound
change for participants and their attorneys. Cooperating, information sharing and creative
problem solving replace suspicion, fear and mistrust. The collaborative law model allows
attorneys to leave behind the negative characteristics of the adjudicatory model which are
emotionally and physically destructive to attorneys and their clients alike.
The ground rules for the process are:
Nothing prohibits any party unilaterally, and without reason, to terminate their role in the
collaborative process and proceed along the more traditional path of individual representation
and court intervention. A major disincentive to litigate is built into the process by the provisions
that present counsel will withdraw and not represent the party if the client elects litigation.
Collaborative counsel will also withdraw from participation if his or her client refuses to follow
collaborative guidelines or abandons the process.
- A pledge by attorneys and parties alike to commit themselves to avoiding litigation.
- Agreement by the parties to provide full, honest and voluntary disclosure of all information.
- Employment of neutral experts, jointly retained by the spouses.
- A process of informal 4-way meetings among the participants;
- Replacement of counsel if the clients elect litigation or if either party thwarts the collaborative process.
A contract and court stipulation confirming the principles and guidelines are an integral part of
the process. Without such agreements, the process would be considered a cooperative divorce
as opposed to the total commitment of good faith negotiation.
Collaborative Law provides the client with control of the process and the outcome. Both parties
are allowed to speak and be heard in a safe environment for communicating. The widest ranges
of settlement options are considered because the process is interest based rather than claim-
denial based. The process controls the pacing of the case rather than being driven by a court
calendar or statutes. Participants work face to face with an open and honest exchange of information.
Having two attorneys involved does not produce the same cost as litigation. The use of jointly
selected experts and advisors, the elimination of filtering, and obtaining all information
simultaneously by all parties greatly reduces legal fees and expenses. Since the parties have
made a commitment not to litigate, the parties and the attorneys devote all of their efforts to a
negotiated settlement (agreement) in an efficient and cooperative manner. Further, the parties
develop a rapport with both attorneys. This removes the mistrust and fundamental differences
each party brings to the divorce process that can cause mediation to fail or create prolonged litigation.
Costly and often unnecessary court preparation and appearances (including time spent waiting
for the case to be called), depositions and other formal discovery methods are eliminated.
Instead, voluntary discovery occurs with full and accurate disclosure of all assets and liabilities in
which the parties may have an interest. The legal requirements that both parties serve each
other with final declarations of disclosure and income and expense statements still are met with
full compliance with the family code.
After each party selects independent collaborative counsel, the process moves forward using
four-way meetings. Typically, the process comprises four stages. In the first stage, all necessary
information is gathered. The second stage analyzes the information, choices, options, and
possible outcomes that might be available. During these stages there is a joint commitment to
develop all of the facts. Anything any party wants to see or review, they can do. If one party has
all the information and records, it is that party's responsibility to get all of the information to the
other party. Stage three begins the negotiation phase with the development of a settlement
model. Once all of the options have been considered and the parties are ready to work on a
settlement, the parties develop comprehensive models for settlement which reflect each other's
interests. In stage four a settlement is negotiated. With all participants thoroughly prepared and
aware of the range of creative possibilities, they are ready to begin actively negotiating the full
settlement of all issues. As the attorneys are the experts in law, the clients are the experts in
what works in their life, so, the attorneys assist the clients to find the solutions. The dictating of
results by the attorneys is not part of the process. There is no court decision, but rather a
resolution creatively crafted by both clients with the assistance of the attorneys.
In the mid 1990's the Collaborative Law movement came to California with the first groups
starting in Santa Clara and San Mateo. These groups were concerned not only about the high
financial and emotional costs to clients in litigated divorce, but also about the tremendous level
of emotional and physical stress among family law attorneys in their area.
In Sacramento, a group of attorneys, after having attended a Sacramento County Family Law
section-sponsored seminar on Collaborative Negotiation, formed the Sacramento Collaborative
Negotiation Group (SCNG - www.divorceoption.com). This group, after extensive research and
review, prepared guidelines and principles governing the collaborative law process for use in the
Sacramento area. A Stipulation and Order re: Collaborative Law was prepared and reviewed by
our local family law judges. The response by judges has been extremely positive and
supportive. The stipulation has been filed and approved by the courts in Sacramento, El Dorado,
Placer and Yolo counties.
These local guidelines are available to all. They may be downloaded either at SCNG's website
www.divorceoption.com or at my firm's website,
Any attorney may act as collaborative counsel. Membership in a group is not a requirement.
However, being educated about the process enhances the understanding and ability to actually
conduct and proceed collaboratively.
The wave of the future of Collaborative negotiation is evidenced by the forming of more than 20
attorney groups throughout California alone. More groups are in the process of being formed as
this is written. The International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP) was formed in
1999 as a nonprofit corporation with the mission of educating both professionals and the public
in collaborative solutions to disputes.
California counties, that have either a collaborative group formed or have attorneys actively involved with collaborative negotiation include:
Alameda, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Lassen, Los Angeles, Marin, Modoc, Napa, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Ventura, Yolo.
I am aware that other groups are in the process of forming throughout the State.
The American Bar Association in late 2001 published a book on collaborative law entitled:
Collaborative Law: Achieving Effective Resolution in Divorce without Litigation. This 264-page
book was written by Pauline H. Tesler, a family attorney from Marin and San Francisco.
Information on obtaining the book may be found at www.abanet.org/abapubs/books.
Collaborative negotiation is very similar to mediation with many of the same benefits (particularly
saving parties time and attorney fees). As with mediation, this process is also voluntary. While
the collaborative law process most commonly is compared to the adversarial system, it does
respond to some concerns expressed about mediation. One frequently cited drawback in
mediation is the power imbalance between the parties. While this is a challenge to a mediator
(and in my experience capable of being resolved), it is much less of a problem in the
collaborative process. In collaboration, the lawyers can intervene directly to head off an
unreasonable position or redirect or absorb undue emotion. With direct attorney-to-attorney
communication, problems are forewarned; there is cooperation in moving matters along, and
attorneys can deal directly with issues.
It is my opinion that it is the duty of the family law attorney to advise clients from the outset, at
the initial consultation, of all of the alternatives of resolving disputes. These include
Collaborative Negotiation, Mediation, and Litigation. Clients deserve to be informed and educated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr. Hal Bartholomew is a founding partner of one of Sacramento's largest family law firms.
They offer a combination of over 50 years in the legal field with expertise in the areas of legal and
tax aspects of divorce, mediation services, child custody and support issues. He has strong ties to the
community and the profession, and lectures frequently on the subjects of family law, custody and mediation
to professional and community-based organizations.
He can be contacted by phone at (916)455-5200 or or Visit Web Site
Please mention DivorceHQ.com when contacting Mr. Bartholomew
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