Can working in teams collaboratively help lawyers to be Peacemakers?
JO: August is International Peace Month and I am delighted to be joined by Jodie McGill who runs her own practice in Nebraska, USA. I first came across the term in the book ‘Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-solving Law’ by J Kim Wright. I read the book and thought, yes – that’s what I am. Jodie, have you had similar revelations?
JODIE: Strangely- no! I first heard of us collaborative attorneys acting as Peacemakers and thought, “I am not a peacemaker”. That description sounds too audacious and perhaps I was scared of not being able to help parties reach peace. Nonetheless, if we consider that our goal as collaborative attorneys is to help the parties reconcile their differences so that they may effectively co-parenting, rebuild trust and respect, and find an amicable resolution, it does pretty adequately describe what we’re trying to do. One aspect that certainly allows me to feel like I’m acting as a peacemaker is when I have a solid team of professionals working with me with the same goal in mind. Jo- how often do you feel like you accomplish that role as a peacemaker?
JO: Yes, the more ‘peacemaking’ work I have done as a mediator or collaborative solicitor (attorney) the more I have realised that we need a team of people to help. Most of those charge less than I do but give time sensitive and bespoke help. I work with Family Consultants (which I think you call mental health professionals?), financial experts and pension experts as a matter of routine. So rather than me put my legal foot in it (and thus not peace make) better to refer to an expert who can work in the team with us. What’s it like in Nebraska?
Jodie: That’s awesome that you’ve made it routine to work with family consultants, financial experts and pension experts. I am still working on using these experts more and more. We have learned to lean on our Family Consultants for their guidance in addressing emotional concerns and really moving the parties through the collaborative process. They also guide us attorneys on how to address our client’s concerns, needs and desires. They are really the grease that makes the collaborative wheel moving. When I think about guiding a family through a divorce, ideally we are starting the healing process during the actual divorce. This concept is not anything that we learn in an American law school! If we’re doing our job in a collaborative divorce, we’re assisting a couple to learn how to more effectively co-parent and communicate as they forge a new relationship with one another. Unfortunately, in Nebraska and most other American states this ideal is the exception. Most family law attorneys in our area argue with the opposing side to the bitter end on everything. In my experience, when we exploit the fractions in parents’ relationship, they are left with an unbelievable amount of anger, pain, and resentment. In a traditional litigated divorce, after these emotions have been heightened, money has been spent, and all of the proverbial mud has been slung, we expect these two people to go forward and co-parent. Who ever thought that was a good idea? I’ve been through that as an attorney too many times. That is what drew me to the collaborative divorce concept. It is tough enough for people to make the determination that the marriage is over and to choose the fear of the unknown with a divorce. The least that we can do as a team, is to guide a divorcing couple toward a peaceful end to their marriage. That’s why so many collaborative professionals talk about making the paradigm shift. Us attorneys have to make a fundamental change in our approach to what it means to represent a client through a divorce process, what it means to have a successful outcome in a divorce, and our roles in a divorce. Is there a lot of acrimony in your area among professionals are not using the collaborative model for divorces? How did you make it routine to include other professionals in your processes?
JO: I can confirm that English law school also does not consider how to help a family heal and form a good co-parenting relationship following a breakup. It is interesting that most family law attorney’s in your area argue to the ‘bitter end on everything’. The same happens over here. Just arguing to win (and get load of fees!). My understanding is that the collaborative process was borne from the fiercely litigious American experience of divorce. To some extent we are probably a little bit tamer over here, but not much. But we lawyers do need to make a paradigm shift from ‘we know all the answers’ to ‘your family priorities are now mine’. Lawyers are, by nature, usually a controlling lot. But we do need to cede control to the couple and other experts who do some of this stuff better and more cost effectively than we do. So I just say to clients’ – ‘this is the way I work. I work in a team as its quicker, cheaper and less acrimonious to do so.’
I have introduced a new team member – the Our Family in Two Homes series of workbooks. I was the first in this jurisdiction. I understand you are the first in your State…how is it going?
Jodie: I love how you referred to them as a new team member! Brilliant! We have been working with the Our Family in Two Homes workbooks since late fall of last year. We love them! They really help our clients be in a mindset of peace and finding a resolution. They have proven to make the process more streamlines and we love the fact that we’re asking our clients to spend some time thinking about their values, their communication and their family dynamics. We hope to roll them out to other practitioners in our area soon. I can imagine the impact for the families if everyone was working together with the workbooks. Have the workbooks been an easy introduction to your practice?
JO: I am an innovator but sometimes I get scared. So I bought the licence, amended the workbooks so relevant for my jurisdiction and then stopped. Not sure why. I am now full steam ahead using them – with my mediation clients and my collaborative divorce clients. I will shortly be using a version of the workbook for pre-nups/cohabitation agreements. But they really are a team member. There is a shorter version available for the Family Consultant to use if they are engaged in working out a Parenting Plan. The clients seem to really enjoy the opportunity to contemplate things on their own and outside of the actual meetings. I or the team can use them to help us understand flashpoints or areas of disagreement. It really cuts down the time it takes to sort things out. So worth every penny.
I’d say that using the workbooks is peace-making – so Jodie I’d say you are a Peacemaker!