I still remember the first time I heard about this ‘new thing’ called Collaborative Practice. I was at a conference on the Gold Coast and one of the presenters had recently returned from a trip to Canada where she had had the opportunity to see the collaborative process in action. I was only a ‘newish’ lawyer then but knew the minute I heard about a process that enabled separating couples to resolve their differences through conversation, with a supportive team of experts, without going to Court, that this area of family law was for me.
Fast forward 15 years and I am now running a Collaborative Law Firm and working almost solely as a Collaborative Lawyer and am so grateful I fell upon this legal process all those years ago. No other legal process offers separating families the space, control and autonomy to resolve the matters arising after separation in the way that Collaborative Practice does. This bespoke process brings together a team of advisors from multiple disciplines including law, accounting, financial planning, counselling and psychology to ensure that the individuals involved receive the holistic support they need at such a challenging time. By prioritising the values and goals of the individuals involved as opposed to the legal outcomes that might otherwise result in an adversarial system, Collaborative Practice enables bespoke outcomes that take into account the needs of the family for the future.
Working as a Collaborative Practitioner is not easy- for lawyers it requires us to tap into skills that are otherwise often at the back of our tool box when it comes to adversarial practice, however being a Collaborative Practitioner provides an opportunity to be a creative problem solver- something that brought so many of us lawyers to law in the first place.
It is well over 10 years now that I have been practicing as a Collaborative Lawyer and recently I was asked to address the NSW Association of Collaborative Professionals on my learnings so far. Here were my 5 key reflections-
1. Lose the lawyer lingo
Ask anyone who doesn’t work with separating families the meaning of the term ‘Collaborative Practice’ and there is a strong chance they will look at you oddly before describing something that has nothing to do with divorce. I see so many Collaborative lawyers and other professionals getting tongue tied trying to come up with fancy explanations for this process when I think we just need to lose the ‘lawyer lingo’.
At its core, Collaborative Practice is just a name for a legal process and we are better to talk about the benefits and results rather than worry about the technical definitions when we are talking with our clients.
Collaborative Practice will enable a couple to separate, stay out of Court and stay friends and that is how I tend to describe it when asked. We do this by assembling a team of advisors, meeting as needed, gathering information and ultimately finding solutions to whatever challenges are presented. Like all legal processes, documents will ultimately be drafted reflecting the agreements that have been reached. But this is a bespoke process that ultimately is led by the clients.
As professionals, I think we need to find better ways of describing this process to our clients and lose the lawyer lingo along the way.
2. Growing a Collaborative Practice is a Marathon not a Sprint
It has taken me 9 years of hard and consistent work to grow a law firm that is now a boutique Collaborative Practice. I have invested hundreds of hours in learning, sharing and teaching all things Collaborative Practice to grow this important work worldwide. I see many enthusiastic practitioners jump out of their first course ready to throw away their litigation files and just start collaborating.
This process is still relatively new and many of the clients visiting our firms have not heard about it before. It therefore will take time to build a reputation and business that both attracts and delivers Collaborative work. That is not so say ‘give up now’- quite the opposite, I say ‘just do it’ but be ready for the Collaborative Practice race to be more of a marathon than a sprint. If you really want the chance to specialise in this type of work you will need to invest many hours in building relationships but I can promise you, if you do, you will be rewarded.
3. There is no ‘i’ in team
A cornerstone of the Collaborative Process is the team of professionals that gather together to assist the family through separation. No other legal process has given me the chance to work alongside an opponent in this way. In Collaborative practice opposing lawyers need to both advocate for their client whilst at the same time assist each other, and each other’s clients- no one wins unless everyone wins in Collaborative Practice as the process is steeped in the now well developed theory of interest based negotiation.
It is the pulling together of a team and the capacity for the individual professionals to both complete their role while still working together that will be the success (and the failure) of any Collaborative Matter. There is no ‘i’ in team. You will need to be able to trust that the professionals on your team are as committed to the process and the family at its core, rather than their individual roles, to ensure you can work in this way.
4. Sometimes you just have to stop
Every Collaborative matter I have been involved in has reached a hurdle at some stage and in my early days of this work I was too quick to jump into my tool box to find the solution. These past few years I have come to learn the benefits of ‘slowing down’ and sometimes even ‘stopping’.
Time is a wonderful healer. If you find yourself a part of a Collaborative Process where you feel that your professional team is working harder than your clients that is often a good sign that it is time to slow down or even stop. Stopping doesn’t mean ‘give up’. Stopping means taking a mindful break- going back to the drawing board, identifying the issues that are causing the impasse and brain storming, as a group, all the options that are available. By reverting to the basic principles of interest based negotiation, almost all impasses can be overcome.
As lawyers we are trained to find the solution but in Collaborative Practice we need to calm this side of our brain as sometimes our solution may not be the only one, the best one or even the right one for the family. Taking a break or slowing down is a great way of giving our clients the time and space they need to often find the solution that is best for them.
5. It will make you a better practitioner (even a better litigator)
As a Collaborative Lawyer I would describe myself as a far better litigator than I was before. Collaborative Practice offers the opportunity to learn from multiple disciplines expanding our knowledge and skills, to practice advocacy in a way that you will have never before but perhaps most importantly, Collaborative Practice will hone your capacity to identify the actual issues in a matter- those issues (legal or not) that are preventing a solution from being found. These skills are invaluable in traditional adversarial practice.
Collaborative Practice offers separating families holistic and sustainable solutions during one of the most difficult times in life. As a Collaborative Professional, I am able to be the sort of lawyer that I really want to be working in a way that I know will enable me to continue in what can be a difficult profession well into the future.
After many years of this work I have learned so much and am sure I have much more still to learn. If you have been working in this area like me, I would welcome hearing your reflections too.
Clarissa Rayward is a Divorce Lawyer and the Owner of Brisbane Family Law Centre. over the past 14 years, Clarissa has worked with over 2000 families during separation and divorce. She specialises in assisting her clients to experience a dignified divorce- staying away from the Court process and finding sustainable agreements for the future. This past year Clarissa has begun to tackle the challenging issue of unhappiness in the legal profession through her writing and weekly Podcast ‘Happy Lawyer Happy Life’ where once a week she interviews lawyers who have found a way to maintain a successful career in the law while not giving up their life outside of their career.
If you would like to learn more about Collaborative Practice you can join Clarissa’s upcoming Introductory and Advanced workshops in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.
Upcoming Introductory workshops are in Sydney (28 & 29 July) and Brisbane (27 & 28 October) you can learn more and register here.
Upcoming Advanced workshops are in Sydney (27 July), Melbourne (16 September) Adelaide (30 September) you can learn more and register here.