"Collaborative Divorce"… sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? When most people envision divorce proceedings, the images that come to mind first are likely those of conflict and argument where the parties fight, and the lawyers make lots of money. But divorce doesn't have to be this way – there is a more civil way out, and that way is Collaborative Divorce.
But what is the collaborative process, and is it right for you? This article will outline the history and process of Collaborative Divorce in Texas, and give you a guide to determine if it's a good fit for your case.
The collaborative process is relatively new, arriving in Texas in 1999. Since that time, a small but dedicated group of like-minded Family Law Attorneys has worked to raise awareness and use of the collaborative process in resolving divorce cases.
In the early 2000s, that same group of attorneys formed the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas, which is the body that promotes the process and offers training for professionals wishing to use Collaborative Divorce in their practices. Dallas is ground zero for collaborative law in Texas, and the process is beginning to take root in other major metro areas like Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.
How It Works
So what makes a Collaborative Divorce different? Part of the answer lies in the name. In a Collaborative Divorce, the parties (each spouse and their respective attorneys) agree at the outset that they will work as a team to reach an agreement using interest-based negotiation. In order to facilitate an agreement, the parties may choose to bring in other professionals to assist, including mental health and/or financial professionals. Each of the professionals involved will have been trained in the collaborative process and be bound by a written agreement that sets out the ground rules for everyone.
What will follow is a series of meetings where you, your soon-to-be-ex-spouse, your respective attorneys, and the other team members gather to negotiate a settlement that serves the interests of both of you in the best way possible. If your case is simple, there may be as few as two meetings. If your case is complex, it may take several more sessions.
How Is Collaborative Different?
Collaborative Divorce is confidential, customized, cost-conscious, and client-, child- and family-centered.
- Confidential: When you choose a Collaborative Divorce, you choose a process that is private. Litigating a divorce puts your personal details on the public record, and I've found that most couples would rather keep their private business private.
- Customized: Engaging in collaborative law allows you to fully customize your agreement. Because you've agreed to engage in interest-based negotiation, you'll be able to come up with novel and creative ways to meet your needs. In an adversarial case, creativity goes right out the window — you may find that your ultimate agreement is good enough, but certainly not optimal.
- Cost-conscious: If you know anyone who has divorced using the adversarial process, you know that it was likely expensive. Fighting is costly because your attorney will spend precious billable hours writing motions, making demands, sorting through discovery, attending hearings, and counseling you on your legal options. Because you aren't spending time arguing during a Collaborative Divorce, you can focus on reaching an agreement and pay for fewer billable hours.
- Client-centered: Finally, the collaborative process allows you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse to keep the focus on preserving your future family harmony. If children are involved, this can have a huge impact on your ability to co-parent effectively into the future.
But it's not all rainbows and sunshine. You may find that your collaborative sessions are emotionally charged and stressful. You will work hard in your sessions. It is even possible that you will not be successful in reaching an agreement through the collaborative process.
In those rare cases, you will be obligated to start from scratch – including finding new attorneys. Why? The collaborative process only works if all parties are incentivized to make it work. Forcing all parties to walk away when the process is unsuccessful is a powerful motivation to stay at the table.
Is It Right for Me?
I'll admit to a personal bias in answering this question. In my experience, couples generally reach agreement more quickly and reach agreements of higher quality when they engage in interest-based, family-oriented negotiations. But collaborative law isn't for everyone.
The main ingredients for success include:
- Two willing parties. If you wish to use Collaborative Divorce but your soon-to-be-ex-spouse doesn't, there isn't much you can do. If you are still in the early stages of your case, now is the time to propose this process – before attorneys are hired, and before too much acrimony can build up.
- Two attorneys who believe in the collaborative process. In order to successfully complete a collaborative case, both parties must be represented by attorneys trained in the collaborative process.
- A willingness to work diligently to reach agreement during negotiations. Divorce is an emotionally charged process, and the negotiations will not be easy. However, you'll have a set of highly trained and dedicated professionals to help you through each session.
- A willingness to hire and work with the right mix of professionals. Not every case will need a team beyond your respective attorneys, but sometimes you may require a mental health professional and/or a financial professional. You'll reach the best agreement more quickly if you are willing to build (and pay for) the right team.
How Do I Get Started?
So you've decided that Collaborative Divorce is right for you and your family. Excellent! The most important thing you can do now is find the right attorney for you. Interview two to three candidates and start talking to your soon-to-be-ex-spouse now (before they hire an attorney) to lay the groundwork for entering into the process. Where can you find a list of attorneys? Start here: members.collaborativedivorcetexas.com/find-a-collaborative-professional.
This article was written with the kind assistance of the Collaborative Law Practice at The Hunt Law Firm.
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 A negotiation strategy in which both sides start with declarations of their interests, rather than putting forward proposals. The parties then work to develop an agreement that satisfies common interests and balances opposing interests.
 This feature of Collaborative Divorce is one key reason some attorneys refuse to participate in a collaborative case. If you want a Collaborative Divorce, attorney selection will be key.