Some movies just cry out for a sequel. As the action ends and the credits begin to roll, a consensus among viewers swells: there’s some unfinished business here, there’s got to be a better way to end this story. That was the case recently when I had the opportunity to attend the premiere screening of an important documentary film, called Divorce Corp. In the film, director Joseph Sorge puts a spotlight on just how ugly family law court can be.
Certainly, it has been tempting for some observers to dismiss the movie, which focuses on some extreme ways in which couples and families are left in shambles by a process that can be manipulated, twisted, abused and otherwise perverted.
But, still, what remains is the harsh reality that such extremes can occur in the first place. Also true, though left unexplored in Divorce Corp., is that for more than 20 years now the practice of collaborative law has offered a highly desirable alternative for couples seeking a “kinder, gentler” divorce. So we should not settle for the film’s ending, which leaves this question hanging: “Should we do away with family law court?” A much more relevant, and hopeful, question: as a civilized society, what steps can we take to ensure that family law increasingly shifts out of the court system so that collaborative divorces become the norm?
The first step is the same step I have undertaken with every client in my 12 years of practicing collaborative law: education. The philosophy behind collaborative law is simple: even if your marriage fails, that doesn’t mean you have to carry that failure over into your post-marriage lives. Traditionally, divorces have been litigated matters, characterized by drawn-out, expensive and combative affairs in which each side “lawyers up.”
Now practiced in at least 25 countries, Collaborative Divorce (aka Collaborative Law or Collaborative Practice) is a “no-court-client-centered” dispute resolution process that separating spouses can use with the help of professionals (licensed legal, mental health and financial professionals) trained in collaborative law and mediation. Among other components of Collaborative Law, the professionals (lawyers, mental health and financial professionals) enter a written commitment not to go to court, and commit to withdraw if either or both of the spouses decide that litigation (i.e., third-party decision making by a judge) is necessary or desired.
So far, thousands of families have benefited from this approach. And anyone contemplating divorce or who knows someone in that situation should make a point of understanding collaborative law and other alternatives to a court process, such as private mediation and unbundled legal services. Otherwise, the likelihood of “divorce disaster,” as highlighted vividly in Divorce Corp., rises—with children bearing the brunt of its long-lasting ill effects. And those negative outcomes inevitably spin off into the broader community where we live, work and attend school. ■