From theory to collaborative practice

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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

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.

 

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Collaborative Practice – unique skillset or traditional lawyering?

 

Student Guest Post by Ben Zocco

 

This post is the first in a series of posts on this blog written by students studying Non-Adversarial Justice at the Faculty of Law at Monash University. Students were invited to write blog posts explaining various complex areas of law relating to dispute resolution to ordinary readers. The very best posts are published here.

 

 

The advent of collaborative practice as a means of resolving family law disputes has provided couples with a means of completing a divorce or separation in a conciliatory and cost effective manner. With more than 200 practitioners currently registered with the Law Institute of Victoria’s Collaborative Law Section, a significant number of lawyers have undergone training that allows them to practice collaboratively.

 

The Law Council of Australia’s Basic Training Requirements

In response to its increasing popularity of collaborative practice, the Law Council of Australia has published the Australian Collaborative Practice Guidelines for Lawyers. This document encompasses a series of “Basic Training” requirements in order to be recognised as being collaboratively trained. This set of overarching training requirements forms a best practice guide for ensuring practitioners engaging in collaborative law are appropriately prepared for acting in this unique practice area.

army-recruit-is-in-training-at-the-army-physical-training-school-brisbane-1942Image: Courtesy State Library of Queensland

 

The Basic Training requirements provide for the teaching of a range of skills that are unique to the practice of collaborative law. This is particularly so with the requirement that practitioners are provided with relevant training of the “collaborative model”.

 

What is Collaborative Practice?

Collaborative practice, as the name suggests, is a non-adversarial process used to resolve disputes. It requires the parties and their legal representatives to enter into a formal contract that puts the focus of the process settling a matter rather than resorting to litigation. Terms in the agreement generally refer to a commitment for each party to engage in the collaborative process in good faith and to share all available relevant information pertaining to the dispute with the other party. If the dispute is not resolved and parties seek to formally commence legal proceedings, the lawyers engaged in the collaborative process are contractually required to cease representing their clients. This requires the parties to engage new lawyers, generally at a significant cost, and serves as a major incentive to the parties to find common ground and work collaboratively to resolve their dispute.

Collaborative practice is conducted in the presence of each party and their legal adviser in what is described as a “four way meeting”. Several four way meetings take place over the course of a number of months, with each run according to agenda devised by the parties in consultation with their lawyers prior to the meeting. The conclusion of the four way meetings seeks to culminate in the drafting and execution of an agreement that resolves the dispute in a manner that is mutually acceptable to both parties.

 

The Unique Nature of Collaborative Practice

The collaborative model, as describe above, is an entirely unique approach to the resolution of disputes. While traditional mediation is also seen as an alternative to litigating matters, it differs from collaborative practice in many respects. The absence of a mediator in collaborative practice requires the legal representatives to facilitate the discussion rather than simply representing their client. Additionally, the capabilities necessary to operate collaboratively in the absence of a court-mandated framework for discovery and good faith negotiation is at odds with that of conventional alternative dispute resolution approaches. Accordingly, this skillset is unique to collaborative law practitioners.

The skills required of collaborative practitioners are also unique insofar as the model makes use of independent experts to facilitate the settlement of disputes. It is standard practice in a matter being resolved collaboratively to utilise the expertise of third party professionals, especially those who are trained as child specialists or financial advisors. These experts assist the parties and the lawyers in exploring interests (rather than positions) and potential options to satisfy the needs of the parties. Additionally, their experience assists the couple in being able to understand the impact of their separation on their children, as well as its effect on the financial position of each person once the dispute has finalised.

While the interaction of legal practitioners and independent experts is extremely common, the manner in which they work together in a collaborative setting compared with that of general legal practice is significantly different. In many jurisdictions, the relationship between independent expert is governed by a formal practice note, issued by the court. Lawyers typically engage independent experts by way of a formal retainer, setting out the advice necessary for the purposes of the matter. The expert will then write a formal report, setting out their findings. In many cases, an expert will be required to “hot tub” with an expert appointed by the opposing party in order to reach consensus conclusions and to narrow the issues in dispute. Additionally, experts retained in a litigation matter are subject to rigorous cross examination from other parties, adding an adversarial flavour to their contribution made for the purposes of resolving the matter.

In contrast, a collaborative approach requires each party to jointly appoint an expert, often by way of a shared recommendation by the practitioners representing them. The expert will work with each party in the room together and will rarely engage in separate discussions with parties individually. Rather than the lawyers approaching the assistance of an expert’s contribution as potentially suspect or misconstrued as may be the case in litigated disputes, they are able to respect and value their support in a truly collaborative fashion. Accordingly, the interdisciplinary approach to collaborative practice means a collaborative practitioner is required to have a unique skillset when involving experts in a matter being managed collaboratively.

 

Negotiation for All, Not Just the Collaborative

While there are many aspects of the “Basic Training” requirements that are unique to collaborative practitioners, it is clear that are not all exclusively within the domain of collaborative law.

A crucial example of this is the necessity that collaborative practitioners must be aware of and trained in negotiation theory; specifically, that of the differences between interest and positional-based bargaining.

A key tool in the arsenal of a collaborative practitioner is assisting the parties to consider the distinction between positions and interests. Unlike traditional positional bargaining, focusing on interests allows the parties to concentrate on the key issues that require resolution, rather than the parties becoming distracted on minor matters, falling into positional impasses or creating acrimony in the process. This prioritisation of interests, rather than positions, also assists the parties in being able to develop creative solutions that are mutually amenable, rather than being focused on finding a middle ground between two respective positions, neither of which may be the best holistic outcome.

But similar strategies are used in some forms of mediation generally, rather than solely within a collaborative setting. Facilitative mediation, for instance, also focuses on steering the parties toward concentrating on positions rather than interests. This occurs in a traditional mediation setting, involving the parties, their legal representatives and a trained mediator. Additionally, several popular negotiation courses offered by institutions such as MIT and Harvard University train legal practitioners and business executives to be aware of the distinction when being involved in a negotiation.

Accordingly, negotiation theory should not be considered solely a skill that is relevant to collaborative practitioners, but to the legal profession generally. Despite the differences in approach to alternative dispute resolution, ensuring that the legal profession is adequately trained to delineate between a client’s needs and wants should be recognised in considering the skills that are desirable for all practitioners to hold.

It is clear that collaborative practitioners are required to be appropriately trained in their interaction with fellow lawyers in a collaborative setting, the collaborative model in general and the manner in which the interdisciplinary focus of the practice differs from the general use of experts in a dispute. These are skillsets that, currently, are largely unique and confined to the practice of collaborative law. It is essential for the continued success of collaborative practice within Australia for the distinction between these attributes to other forms of alternative dispute resolution to be clear.

However, it can also be said that collaborative law requires skills that are not solely used within its discipline. A knowledge of negotiation theory is highly desirable for legal practitioners to possess for everyday dispute resolution, not just that involving collaborative practice. To that extent, it is clear that the collaborative practice “Basic Training” requirements of the Law Council of Australia encompass training that is both unique to collaborative practitioners and also relevant to the legal profession generally.

 

Mr Ben Zocco has recently completed Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees from Monash University and will be commencing as a graduate lawyer with a national law firm in 2017. He has spent the later years of his legal education studying various forms of alternative dispute resolution and looks forward to the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice as a lawyer.