Divorce is painful. The dissolution of a marriage can put both spouses and their children on an emotional roller coaster. Additionally, these troubled times for families can have a ripple effect impacting everyone who interacts with them — friends, colleagues, and business contacts. When we read about the conflicts of prominent citizens in the paper, such as the articles on the Latham divorce featured recently in The Post and Courier, the ripple extends to the whole community.
American culture emphasizes “quick” fixes, glorification of violence and a love of litigation (“The Good Fight”). It does much to promote conflict and is much “quieter” about promoting honest communication and problem solving. Trial lawyers have come to be viewed as “hired guns” or “gladiators” who do battle in the courtroom, promising that out of the ashes of their fight the “Phoenix” will rise and the “Truth” will be revealed.
The problem is that most of the time the only real winners in modern-day Family Court litigation are the trial lawyers, and litigants rarely feel that the “Truth” has been revealed and justice obtained.
It is now commonly understood that true conflict resolution requires the often difficult and time consuming work of understanding the heart of a conflict and resolving it from the inside out.
Family conflicts are often the most difficult kind of legal disputes within our court systems. Family conflicts are frequently exacerbated by lack of communication and lack of problem-solving skills. Families going through divorce often require problem-solving skills that are outside of the expertise of the trial lawyer in order to reach an effective resolution. One need only read one or two issues of The Post and Courier to find numerous illustrations of family conflicts that have spilled out of personal relationships into the public arena. These conflicts are often being resolved by the criminal or family courts who are poorly suited to assist families through conflict.
It is important for families facing divorce to understand that they have options other than hiring a trial lawyer to file a lawsuit in an overburdened court system that is drastically underfunded by the taxpayers. Collaborative Law is a different form of dispute resolution which is non-adversarial and non-litigious. It is similar to mediation in these ways, but is specifically designed to help meet the future needs of divorcing families.
Unlike court ordered mediation where both parties have already retained trial counsel and may be hardened in their expectations and demands, in Collaborative Law both parties and their respective collaborative lawyers meet in a confidential setting and work together in a mature and respectful way to resolve all issues before the filing of a lawsuit. Attorneys are trained to facilitate discussion, encourage communication, and model problem-solving skills.
Collaborative Law also recognizes the fact that attorneys do not necessarily have all the answers to a bring about a resolution of a family’s dispute. The collaborative process utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that involves therapists, family counselors, and financial consultants, also trained in the collaborative process, to assist the parties reaching a resolution. The use of other trained collaborative professionals is premised on the understanding that the most qualified professional is able to provide the best service at the most affordable cost.
An additional benefit of the Collaborative Law process is discretion — keeping private business in a divorce private. The Lathams’ divorce is a perfect example of very private matters made available for public scrutiny. Most of us would prefer to keep our personal business to ourselves. In Collaborative Law, there is no court involvement until the couple has resolved all of their issues in a written agreement, then only generic pleadings are filed, requesting court approval of their resolution.
It is my opinion that attorneys have a responsibility to their communities to reduce conflict while increasing civilized communication. What other professional is more aptly suited to prevent the conflict and suffering of our fellow citizens?
Not only can attorneys help their clients resolve their immediate legal problems in a respectful manner, they can perform a service to the community by showing that family conflict does not have to result in completely broken relationships and public airing of personal issues.
Through the Collaborative Law process, attorneys help clients develop the confidence to know that they can resolve their problems in any future conflict by using the problem-solving skills that have been modeled for them and which they have used successfully in their divorce process, without the need to retain trial lawyers.
While no divorce is easy, Collaborative Law is an efficient and respectful process that reduces animosity between parties and leads to a dignified resolution. The collaborative process can greatly decrease the emotional stress on a family with the added benefit of empowering participants with life-long communication skills and strategies to handle future issues before they escalate into a public legal conflict.
Families using Collaborative Law to divorce often report better communication (and as a result a more respectful relationship) after the divorce than before. As an attorney, that is a result which gives me great satisfaction.
Guy J. Vitetta is a practicing trial attorney in Charleston. A certified Family Court mediator, he serves on the Board of Directors of the South Carolina Collaborative Law Institute.