I was a legal academic for twenty years: teaching, researching and writing about family law and family mediation. I have always sought to integrate theory with practice, and to inform my teaching and research with professional experience and current innovation. So, in addition to being a lawyer, I have trained and practised as a mediator, a family dispute resolution practitioner, a conflict coach and an interdisciplinary collaborative practice coach.
Interdisciplinary collaborative practice training
I thought I understood the collaborative framework and philosophy, but interdisciplinary collaborative practice training helped me better appreciate the rationale, the nuances of the process, the significance of teamwork and presence, and the value-add and roles of legal and non-legal professionals in this approach to dispute resolution. It sparked a strong interest to enrich my professional practice to include this burgeoning and important speciality. It made me keen to develop the artistry required of an effective collaborative practitioner.
At the core of collaborative practice is commitment to enhance party self-determination through structured and staged multi-professional support and advice. To this foundational mediation premise, collaborative practice applies current brain science to understand how separation and divorce are experienced as trauma. This science affirms that in empathising with people who are in acute stress response, professionals walk alongside them, reduce the energy taken up by their limbic system, support them to mirror empathic behaviour and create space for the neocortex to work more effectively.
This is critical because it assists people to manage their anxiety, creates calm, enhances self-awareness and promotes the capacity for active listening. It ultimately supports considered reflection and greater capacity for understanding themself, hearing their ex partner and making informed choices.
Coaching in the five way process
One of the more recent collaborative developments is the five-way collaborative process in which in a coach is an independent and impartial facilitator and steward of the collaborative process. A coach may assess the dispute and parties for suitability, and helps the lawyers and parties to make efficient use of the process.
Coaches often manage the overall process, frame the agenda and minute meetings, as well as assist parties to prepare for the meetings and to communicate effectively. They may meet jointly or separately with each party between five-way meetings to clarify party goals, assist parties to develop strategies to regulate their emotional state, facilitate feedback from child consultants, foster parental alliance, and help the family to transition constructively through the separation.
Coaches may be mental health professionals, but in Australia they are also frequently accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners, bringing mediation expertise and authority to issue family court certificates should agreement not be reached. If appropriately trained, coaches may also bring the power of empathy to assist parties to self-regulate and to suport their capacity for empathic listening.
Coaches don’t need to be mental health professionals to do this, but do need to be aware of their professional boundaries, and to refer parties to seek psychological support or counselling if needed. The value of coaches in collaborative practice is their impartiality and their capacity to support interest-based negotiation, creatively problem solve, manage the meeting and between-meeting processes and keep the collaborative process on track.
Interdisciplinarity is one of the key features and advantages of contemporary collaborative practice. The support provided to parties by a multi-professional team can be invaluable and ensure informed decisions are made which have a whole-of-life and whole-of-family perspective.
A collaboratively trained financial neutral or forensic accountant can not only provide advice and options to distribute assets to meet immediate needs and just outcomes, but can do this within a longer-term perspective to address complex structuring issues, save tax and super and optimise parties’ future financial viability. Children’s specialists can also assist parents to hear their child’s experience of the separation and clarify what is in the child’s best interests.
Opportunities for lawyers
This interdisciplinarity, and especially the coach role, has the potential to decentre lawyers. But I think it actually frees lawyers to employ their expertise and advocacy to help parties achieve holistic outcomes. Whilst collaborative practice is likely to be attractive to lawyers already committed to non-adversarial and client-centred lawyering, it requires that lawyers are collaboratively trained so that they fully appreciate what teamwork requires, and what commitment to empower people to resolve their disputes jointly and collaboratively means in practice.
Because of its flexibility, collaborative practice also provides lawyers with further opportunities to reframe the process in ways consistent with protecting their client’s legal rights as well as problem solving about their needs and interests. Thus collaborative law has the potential for lawyers to contribute to reshaping the paradigms of legal practice and appropriate dispute resolution.
For many family lawyers this is their preferred form of practice. Family law clients report the benefits of collaborative practice in easing the separation transition and supporting post separation family life. One commented ‘my children are happy that their parents went through a non-adversarial process and they had a chance to voice their opinions to the Child Consultant and Coach’. Another reported ‘my husband and I decided we would try the process to see if we could get through our divorce amicably. Overall this was extremely successful and I would definitely suggest that anyone going through a divorce consider the collaborative route – it is quicker, it is cheaper and it encourages the couple to remain civil despite the tense emotions that inevitably come into play during a divorce.’
Collaborative practice has enormous potential to provide multi-professional support to transition people through separation and help them make informed, child-centred and life affirming choices. Further information is available through state-wide collaborative professional networks and collaborative practice training organisations.
Also published in Collaborative Professionals (NSW) Inc Newsletter, 20 April 2018 and on Armstrongmediation.com.au blog on 11 May 2018.