Overview of the Collaborative Process

The Collaborative Process is very different than typical litigation.  It is also fundamentally different than mediation or other non-court, alternative, dispute resolution processes.  The Collaborative Process uniquely changes the way disputes are resolved so you are spared the stress, waste, and loss of control that typically occurs when you turn your matter over to the courts and old-fashioned attorneys.  The Collaborative Process utilizes specially trained attorneys plus a written agreement not to go to court.  It is designed to focus on larger goals and interests rather than getting bogged down in expensive petty disputes.  The Collaborative Process produces documents that comply with Washington law but the terms embodied in those documents are identified and agreed upon without the waste and dysfunctional behavior typical of litigation. 

It must first be decided whether the Collaborative Process is appropriate for you.  Family law disputes are inherently difficult and sometimes reflect deep and fundamental problems.  Many people are attracted to the advantages of the Collaborative Process but lack the ability to be insightful, forthright, and focused on healthy negotiations.  Experienced and specially trained Collaborative Process attorneys will help decide whether this unique process is a good fit for you and your family.  If you are interested in the Collaborative Process, it really starts with a consultation and engagement of a specially trained attorney to represent you.  Most collaboratively trained attorneys offer a free initial consultation to help you understand how the process works, and to help determine if the collaborative process would be a good choice for you.

Assuming you are a good candidate for the Collaborative Process, the other person in your dispute must also hire a specially trained collaborative attorney.  The two attorneys then confer and discuss factors that may impact how the process will proceed.  The participants and their attorneys then meet face-to-face for the first time and the participants formally sign a written agreement to participate in the Collaborative Process.  The written agreement commits the participants to treat each other with respect, to provide all relevant information, and to keep discussions confidential.   A key aspect of the written agreement is the commitment not to go to court.  If anyone drops out of the process, he or she has to hire an old-fashioned litigation attorney, which builds in an incentive for everyone to use their best efforts to resolve issues during the Collaborative Process.  Typically the attorneys confer after the first meeting about how to structure future meetings so they are as productive as possible.   

After signing the written agreement, the attorneys next help the participants to identify their larger interests or goals in regards to finances and parenting.  Often participants come to the process overly focused on particular positions and are unaware of their larger overriding interests.  By focusing on larger interests, more satisfying and more lasting solutions can be achieved.  By learning the interests of the other participant, it becomes easier to identify solutions that will be acceptable to both participants.  The list of interests are regular reviewed and revised.  The goal of everyone involved in the Collaborative Process, the team, is to satisfy as many of the interests of the participants as thoroughly as possible.

Soon after identifying interests, the team decides how best to obtain and analyze basic information regarding assets, debts, current and future budgets, financial needs, incomes and values of all assets.  The information is produced and shared in good faith unlike the expensive and obstreperous process that often occurs in litigation.  If either attorney learns that their participant is failing to produce relevant information, that attorney must withdraw from the process.   Often neutral experts help provide information to the team.  A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, specially trained in the Collaborative Process, is employed to collect and analyze the financial data.   The financial expert has skills, tools, and training beyond that of the attorneys and their contribution often results in savings over having two attorneys collect the data.  Sometimes the team also employs experts in child development, to give the participants objective information about their children and to give the children a voice in the process. 

Throughout the process a specially trained facilitator is often utilized to maximize efficiency.  Facilitators are experts in communication and take the lead in helping the participants traverse the emotional side of their divorce or conflict.  It is not unusual for one participant to be emotionally further along than the other participant.  It is important that both participants are able to communicate meaningfully, focus their energies on the tasks at hand, and are prepared to process information and make decisions.  A facilitator's goal is to make the Collaborative Process run as smoothly as possible even when faced with tough challenges.  In appropriate situations, each participant can also have their own coach to intensely and directly work with the participants regarding being emotionally ready to move ahead.  Facilitators and coaches usually pay for themselves by helping to keep the team moving forward instead of turning down emotional dead end streets. 

From start to finish the attorneys manage the process, confer with each other and their respective participants before and after meetings, and make sure each participant is receiving the support, information and assistance needed to make informed decisions.  The attorneys structure the process so each participant is informed and feels as little anxiety as possible.  Within the confines of the law, and with the assistance of the professionals, the participants decide the actual outcomes of their case.  No one knows what is best for their children and no one knows what is fair and equitable in regards to property division and financial support better than the participants themselves.  The goal of each attorney is to provide the guidance and structure that allows the participants to find the solutions that satisfy their respective interests as much as possible. 

Without basic Collaborative Process training the attorneys and other professionals are unprepared to properly assist the participants and structure the process to succeed.  Most successful Collaborative Process attorneys and other professionals have many hours of training beyond the basic courses in order to obtain new skills and insights into how to maximize the probability of success.   Lots of attorneys and professionals are cooperative and are attracted to the word "collaborative" but without formal Collaborative Process training they are doomed to failure because they will only have their years of law school and adversarial litigation experience to fall back on when faced with challenges and conflict.   Successful Collaborative Professionals are also active members of practice groups so they have a vibrant group to receive feedback from and a resource to learn the latest information and insights into how to maximize the Collaborative Process experience.  The Spokane County Collaborative Professionals association provides opportunities for legal, financial, and mental health professionals and counselors to receive the requisite education and training to become competent in the use of Collaborative Practice.

Sometimes people worry that the Collaborative Process will not protect them and they will somehow miss out on what they deserve or need.   At the end of a successful Collaborative Process case, both participants should feel that they have achieved as many of their interests and goals as possible under the circumstances.  If your intention is to punish your spouse or to squeeze the last nickel possible out of the other side, then the Collaborative Process is probably not for you.  If your goal is to be informed, to conduct yourself honorably, and to treat the other participant fairly, then you will very likely be personally satisfied and feel good about how you treated the other party at the conclusion of the Collaborative Process. 

Divorce and resolving conflicts is never easy.  However, by the end of the Collaborative Process, parents often report improvements in their ability to co-parent and anticipate being able to attend their children's graduations and weddings together.   Most participants look back at the Collaborative Process with pride because it was a time they acted in accordance with their principles instead of resorted to the childish behavior often seen in traditional litigation.