All true collaborative cases have the same basic structure: two collaboratively-trained lawyers and a participation agreement outlining the rights and responsibilities of the parties and the professionals. I know lawyers who call themselves “collaborative” because they simply think they can work well with other attorneys. Without two lawyers who have taken special training in collaborative practice, there is no collaborative case. Each state has its own collaborative training program and most states have a statewide collaborative organization, so it is relatively easy to find out whether a particular lawyer in your state has been formally trained in the collaborative process.
True collaborative lawyers have experience. In Georgia, a collaborative lawyer must be a member of the State Bar of Georgia to take the collaborative training. To date there are no collaborative courses in law schools in Georgia (although Georgia State University College of Law will offer one next spring). Because collaborative professionals rely so heavily on creative problem-solving to address a family’s needs, the best collaborative attorneys have substantial family law litigation experience in addition to their collaborative training. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a good collaborative lawyer with very little family litigation experience, but as my mom used to say, “you’ve gotta know the rules before you can break them.” Experience gives a collaborative lawyer a good idea of what works–and what doesn’t–in the years following a couple’s collaborative divorce.
A collaborative lawyer must be a problem-solver at heart. The founder of Collaborative Law, Stu Webb, came to Atlanta in the early days of the movement to speak on collaborative methods. An audience member asked, “what do we do when nothing is working?” Stu replied, “we roll up our sleeves and work a little harder.” The next question came: “And what do we do when that doesn’t work?” Stu: “We roll up our sleeves and work a little harder.” Stu’s point lies at the heart of collaborative practice. There are no problems in a collaborative divorce that cannot be solved with hard work, good faith, creativity, and the willingness to work harder until we find a solution. A good collaborative lawyer must have the patience and personality to keep rolling up his or her sleeves and work a little harder.
Most collaborative lawyers have these three qualities, but the fourth quality is what separates everyday collaborative lawyers from great ones. A great collaborative lawyer lets go of the outcome. What does this mean? It means letting the client make his or her own decisions. It means educating a client on his or her options, not trying to sell the client on the option the lawyer likes. It means accepting when a client agrees to an outcome that you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. It means being willing to truly work with other professionals, not just to work around them.
One of my friends, a great collaborative lawyer herself, recently made an offhand remark that sums up the attitude of a great collaborative lawyer. She mentioned that she would rather work on a non-collaborative case with a lawyer on the other side than with an unrepresented client on the other side. Why? Because, she says, if I make a mistake I want to know another lawyer is there to catch it. This lawyer is able to let go of her ego, to accept that she might not always be right, and to understand that a client’s good result is more important than a lawyer’s self-importance.
Law schools spend three years teaching us lawyers to fight, to argue, to present our client’s case at all costs, and to be so convinced of our own abilities that we are willing to risk a client’s future on a day in front of a judge. Collaborative practice asks us to forget those lessons and go back to being problem solvers. Few of us can do it at all, and very few of us can do it well.