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It's a Collaborative World: The Ninth Education Forum of the International Association of Collaborative Practitioners

Haema Sundram, partner with Lynch & Co and collaborative lawyer, reports on her trip to the recent meeting of International Association of Collaborative Practitioners and how it has inspired changes in her own approach to collaborative law.

image of Haema Sundram, Partner, Lynch & Co

Haema Sundram, Lynch & Co

The International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP) met for its Ninth Annual Forum in New Orleans from the 15 to the 19 October.  The IACP is an international wide community of legal, mental health and financial professionals whose stated aim is to resolve conflict using client centered processes following the end of a marriage or relationship.

The IACP has a stated membership of 3000 members from 19 countries. The membership is by no means is dominated by legal professionals.  The therapeutic and counseling communities and members of the financial industry are well represented within the membership of the IACP.  The IACP is based in Phoenix, Arizona. The Officers are mainly based in various states of the USA and Canada. However on the Board of Directors are international representatives from Cork, Sydney, Edinburgh and London.

The founder of the Collaborative Law movement, Stu Webb, is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Having practiced traditional family law for 20 years he wanted to find a way to utilize the skills of lawyers as problem solvers into a “settlement only” process for family conflict. He envisioned a model where lawyers and their clients would agree not to go to Court over any issue that may arise thereby allowing them to rise to the challenge of solving the problem. This was in the late 1980s. 

By 1993 the Collaborative Law movement hit California and by the mid-1990s the inter-disciplinary team model whereby psychologists and financial professionals worked together with lawyers to provide a complementary team to assist divorcing or separating couples in a supportive and constructive client-focused way became a norm.  This partnership between mental health professionals, financial professionals and family lawyers was a unique opportunity to provide a client focused approach to problem solving taking into account all aspects of the common conflicts that arise between divorcing and separating couples. 

Initially, the organization was called the American Institute of Collaborative Professionals, but by early 2000 the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals was born in recognition of the rapid growth of collaborative practice certainly in the United States but also in Canada and Switzerland.  In late 2003 the first wave of Collaborative Law training took place in England.  There are now over 1200 collaboratively trained professionals in the UK.

The first two days of the Annual Forum 2008 consisted of “Pre-Forum Institutes”.  These were day long workshops which facilitated total immersion and thereby a deeper understanding and development of collaborative skills. The rest of the weekend gave practitioners a choice of no less than 48 concurrent workshops to choose from on every relevant topic imaginable.  The topics ranged from those of particular relevance to lawyers but also workshops of particular interest to mental health professionals or financial professionals. Indeed Collaborative Law practice is gaining such ground that some workshops were dedicated to its application in the civil and commercial world.

The presenters were immensely knowledgeable and respected leaders in the field of Collaborative Family Law, counsellors, psychiatrists, family coaches and independent financial advisers. The workshops carried such titles as “Roadblocks to Resolution”, which discussed the die-hard habits and tactics which the professionals bring to the collaborative table and how this contributes to making solutions difficult to find. It covered such things as managing clients’ expectations, managing your emotions, avoiding premature positions and understanding that there are differences in how each person processes information. This workshop attempts to equip the professionals with the skills to identify and tackle this behaviour not just in themselves, but in others at the table. 

“Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk” was a general interest workshop that explored the structure of the initial consultation and how to listen to and assess the clients’ story and having effective discussion about the Collaborative Process.  It was interesting that many of the presenters described themselves as ‘ex-barracudas’ who have now totally embraced the collaborative way.  The workshop entitled “Must we say we did not love?” discussed divorce rituals couples engage in and once again the skills that one would need to recognize and take these matters on board. 

“Keeping the children in the centre, not in the middle” focused on the role of a neutral Child Specialist and how to create effective developmentally responsive parenting plans.  “Communicating collaboratively in cyber space” identified the pitfalls of electronic communication and how best to bring peace into the electronic room.  Many workshops focused on  high conflict couples, dealing with the emotions that come up in the negotiation process and skills for brainstorming problems.  One workshop which I attended which I found immensely interesting was called “Day after day the price you pay: managing your second hand shock” presented by Vicky Carpel-Miller and Ellie Izzo who run the Vicarious Trauma Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona.  This workshop focused on the occupational hazard that clients’ stories present to the professional and how this may result in symptoms and reactions that parallel post traumatic stress disorder.

With such an array of information and expertise on offer I was certain that this Annual Forum was going to give me the shot in the arm that I was looking for vis a vis my collaborative practice. I always considered myself to be ‘client–centered’ in my approach and did whatever I could do minimise the ‘battle’ or ‘disaster’ elements of a separation. What I learned at this annual gathering of enthusiastic collaborative professionals was that there is so much more to learn, know and practice about how to work well truly collaboratively. I am so glad to have had my eyes opened and reminded once again of the core principles of collaborative practice and I hope never to fall into a ‘same old same old’ style of thinking and doing.

True collaborative practice requires that practitioners examine and change the way we handle cases and conflict on a deep level. That is what motivated me to attend the IACP annual forum. Having trained as a collaborative lawyer in 2004 and enthusiastically embraced the ethos and core principles advocated by the collaborative law process, I set about undertaking the various skills courses on offer to better absorb and practice new found skills. I was disheartened to find that my experience of the cases that I undertook on a collaborative basis did not sit well with my understanding of how we lawyers should be doing it. I was thirsty for more: more understanding, more skills, more empathy and more caretaking of the process. I wanted to learn how to prevent the process from derailment which is such a price for the client to pay if it fails and not just in  pounds and pennies.

In a fledgling collaborative community, for both practitioners and clients, failure of the process at this stage can be too damaging. For collaborative law to truly grow and take off we need to ensure that experience of the process for both clients and practitioners is  positive. As collaborative practitioners we are caretakers of the process with a duty to educate ourselves and acquire the extra-curricular skills that we need to be effective collaborative professionals.

The 5 days I spent at the Forum were hugely instructive in giving me a deeper understanding of how to do this. It is not easy. It goes against the grain for lawyers to let go of the outcome and to give control of the process to the client. We are used to being asked to take control, to drive the case and deliver to the client. That comes as easily to us as breathing. The challenge is to accept that it is the client’s agreement, it is their past their present and their future. We need the skills to change the way we think of and handle conflict. It is not simply a case of ‘business as usual’ but done with four of us around a table instead of in a court. It is over and above taking a conciliatory and constructive approach to the client’s case. I learned that it really is so much more.

What does my understanding and approach mean for my client? By taking a more holistic, more collaborative approach to their situation I can be more helpful than simply thinking about sticking to timetables and filing evidence which I would be forced to do in the litigation model. Consideration of such factors is extraneous, indeed almost a luxury, in the litigation process when under strict court imposed timetables.

In the forefront of my mind now is always  the recognition that divorce is an emotional process with legal consequences and not a legal process with emotional consequences. An approach that recognises the enormity of what is happening for the client at this stage in their lives must surely create for them as good an experience as is possible in the circumstances.

I was also very keen to test whether I had experienced the ‘paradigm shift’ that I was taught about in the initial training. I had nowhere reached the level of self-awareness that we need to have to be able to participate more effectively in four way meetings for the benefit of my client, the other client, their children and the caretaking of the process as a whole.

How do we achieve that core collaborative value of working for a common or mutual gain while advocating separate interests? We have always worked in a way that sees that those two as mutually exclusive. In the litigation process, we take positions very early on. We inadvertently, or not, allow our clients to become polarized in what they see as acceptable. This type of entrenched thinking must have no currency in the collaborative process. We as the lawyers in the process need the relevant skills to see that the clients approach is not immediately clouded by what the lawyers think should happen, what we think is the right answer. Consider how the words ’entitlement to maintenance’ or ‘long term marriage’ could create expectations that may not be easy for the client to shift from. This ‘not taking control at the outset’ approach is completely outside of our comfort zone, honed by years of tough litigation practice. Moving from rights based negotiations to interest based positions does not come easily to us. Being conscious of how and when the law is discussed is something that my collaborative colleague and I can discuss, present and clarify jointly to our clients in the four way meetings in order to keep the process running smoothly.

The language that we use plays such a big role in how the collaborative process starts, unfolds and progresses. We are so used to using the ‘language of war’. This creates and accelerates conflict for the practitioners and the clients. I need to learn to use non-defensive communication. I learnt how to engage in information gathering in four way meetings using open questioning. It interests me that I am now daring to ask questions in four way meetings that I don’t know the answer to. It is liberating and it gets to the nub of what the clients want and need so much more quickly. It is a much more honest approach and it gets to the real conversation that needs to be taking place.

Our North American collaborative brethren use the team model much more than we seem to here. I have always found that clients are reticent about engaging family coaches or neutral child specialists at the outset as part of the team. The reasoning for this is, I think, only marginally economic and is mostly cultural. It seems that there is much less discomfort about engaging a financial neutral than a family coach, communications consultant or child specialist. For my part, I  am going to try much harder to present to the client the value added that a communications/family coach who is involved from the outset can bring. The importance of mission and vision or anchor statements in both children and money cases cannot be underestimated.

This Annual Forum has stoked my interest and enthusiasm for collaborative work and how to do it better. It has resolved for me any doubts about whether this is the best way forward for conflict resolution for separating couples, families and children. It is. I would wholeheartedly suggest a collaborative divorce to family and friends and believe that my client deserves the same consideration. I want to be certain  that what I present to my client as the collaborative process and how I practise it are one and the same thing: that I do what it says on the tin and that I have those difficult conversations with my collaborative colleague if I feel we are straying from the job description. I want to be able to recognise and deal with any impasse and any ultimate derailment of the process before we get there. For the collaborative process to become the first option with Ms/Mr Jo/e Ordinary, I think committed collaborative practitioners need to ensure that we  come out of each and every collaborative case even more inspired, more motivated and with a positive client experience . We can do this with good preparation and with good effective collaborative communication all the way.

We are experiencing an economic climate unprecedented in our lifetime. It would seem that house sales are not going to happen quickly. This makes most standard style settlements and court orders unworkable. Collaborative law is a privilege available to the separating community to take charge of their agreements, to have their own creative solutions which speak to their interests in this difficult climate, enabling them to move on.

For us practitioners it is an opportunity to grow the collaborative process in this country.


 


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