Divorce Over Easy

Collaborative divorce promises to be kinder, faster, cheaper. But does it really work?

But for Michael and Beth Johnson, the chance was worth taking. They say the bigger risk would have been trying the traditional approach to divorce. While the wounds, especially for Beth, are still fresh, a year after the breakup both can find good words to say about each other. Most important, they say their children were not as scarred by the event as they could have been.

"When you've lived with a person for 18 years and you've had children, you can't ignore that," says Michael. "You care about the person, you don't want to see harm come to that person. I talk to other friends and I hear of some people spending $200,000 on attorneys and a year and a half on the divorce. I can only imagine the nightmare it could have been for us."

After years of doing litigation, Minnesota attorney Stu 
Webb developed collaborative law as an alternative.
Photo courtesy of Stu Webb
After years of doing litigation, Minnesota attorney Stu Webb developed collaborative law as an alternative.
Longtime family lawyer Harry Tindall helped Texas to 
become the first state with a collaborative law statute.
Photo courtesy of Harry Tindall
Longtime family lawyer Harry Tindall helped Texas to become the first state with a collaborative law statute.

Attorney Jennifer Broussard keeps a stack of blue-and-white brochures on her desk titled "Divorce as Friends." A sentence under the title promises, "You can heal your relationship, one human being to another. You just need to learn how." Next to these are a stack of pamphlets from a Houston group Broussard belongs to: The Alliance of Collaborative Family Law Attorneys. The picture on the front shows a ray of sunlight peeking out over a cluster of dark clouds. For Broussard, a family law attorney in Houston for 17 years, the fact that she is one of the city's biggest supporters of collaborative law is ironic.

"I thought I would die with my boots on in the court," says Broussard, who along with attorney Jack Emmott handled the first collaborative divorce case in Houston, in April 2001. "Litigation was everything to me." She says the ham in her enjoyed courtroom dramatics, and she loved the adrenaline rush she got from trial.

But at the same time, Broussard says, she couldn't ignore the negativity.

"I have had clients who live on in anger the rest of their lives" after their divorce, says Broussard. "I've seen them marry and bring that anger into the new marriage, and the whole relationship is based on hating the previous spouse."

In 1997 Broussard's health failed so dramatically she was confined to bed for much of the year. Realizing that the stress of her job had exacerbated her illness, Broussard began to evaluate her purpose as a family law attorney, wondering if there was anything she could do to make the process more humane. After doing some research, she discovered collaborative law.

"We, the lawyers, get out of the spotlight and we get our clients to negotiate and get to an agreement where they had the input and they can sign off on it and feel they did it," she says. Broussard says an attorney has to radically reform the way he or she views divorce. While lawyers are often natural-born problem solvers, law school and the culture of divorce have trained most of them to view a divorce settlement as a bloodbath.

The collaborative trend began a dozen years ago with an attorney in Minneapolis named Stu Webb. A family lawyer since 1971, Webb says he was tired of feeling like he was "constantly under siege." A soft-spoken man who says he once marked a client's divorce by getting a potted plant and splitting it in two for the client and the former spouse, Webb toyed with the idea of quitting law altogether to become a psychotherapist. But an idea struck him the day a new client walked in seeking a divorce. Webb decided to contact another lawyer in town with whom he had always worked well, to see if she would represent his client's wife.

"I thought if we could just get around the table, all four of us, we could figure this out," he says. The attorneys met with their clients but also held several meetings with all the parties involved. The traditional, lengthy process of discovery was not necessary; the clients and lawyers signed agreements promising to disclose everything during the meetings. Sessions were kept short so the couple wouldn't get burned out and agree to something irrationally. The clients even photocopied their own paperwork, something usually done -- and charged for -- by the lawyers. Eventually the couple arrived at a settlement.

But when Webb and the same attorney attempted it a second time, the process broke down and went to trial, an event Webb says was especially nasty because the attorneys had worked so closely together. The trial was so rough that Webb realized the two lawyers might not be able to collaborate ever again. And while Webb agrees few divorces go to trial (in Texas, for example, 93 percent of cases are resolved outside of court), attorneys have no way of knowing if they will appear before a judge, so the process is adversarial from day one.

"We learned from that; the settlement lawyers have to get out of the case" if it breaks down, he says. "That is the essential piece."

On January 1, 1990, Webb declared himself a collaborative lawyer and started a small group in Minneapolis to spread the word. The buzz traveled beyond the state line, first to California and eventually to other parts of the country.

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