The purpose of our study was to discover which client traits, case factors and process characteristics are significantly associated with increased settlement costs. This information can help attorneys manage client’s expectations, minimize disruptions to the collaborative process, and provide a more positive collaborative divorce experience for clients.
Assessing Case and Client Characteristics
It’s relatively easy for attorneys to discern if there are complex financial issues involved in a collaborative case during the first interview. However, it’s more difficult to assess whether there are difficult child-related issues or undetected client traits, such as mental illness or unrealistic expectations, that may generate disruptions and increase settlement costs. Attorneys need to monitor their clients during the entire collaborative process to assess and manage these subtle traits. To help attorneys know what factors they should monitor during the divorce process, we examined which client traits, case factors, and process characteristics are associated with increased cost of settling a collaborative divorce by entering them into a multiple regression analysis as independent variables to predict settlement cost.
By discovering which factors are associated with increased settlement costs, we can help attorneys assess and manage client traits, case factors, or process characteristics that may disrupt the collaborative divorce and increase costs. By recognizing these factors and monitoring them, a collaborative attorney will be in a better position to manage client expectations because he or she will have some warning that particular clients may be disruptive and the case more difficult to resolve. The goal is to give collaborative clients a better divorce experience, help them settle their dispute rather than opt for litigation, and create a favorable impression of the collaborative process for them to share with their friends who need a divorce.
Predicting the Cost of Settlement
Although we all have intuitions about which client traits, case factors, and process characteristics likely increase the cost of settling a collaborative case, we don’t have solid evidence to support our suppositions. To discover which client, case, and process factors are associated with increased settlement costs, we collected personal and demographic information from 138 collaborative couples and subjected the resulting data to a multiple regression analysis.
The factors used as independent variables in our analysis to predict the cost of settling a collaborative case included the following client traits, case factors, and process characteristics:
whether one spouse was non-responsive
whether the clients were disruptive *
whether one or both parties didn’t follow the code of conduct *
whether the clients were frustrated with the process *
whether the clients perceived bias among the professionals
whether the clients’ expectations were met *
whether mental health issues existed in one or both clients*
whether chemical dependence issues existed
whether the clients were reluctant to make decisions
whether they threatened litigation
a power imbalance
were the clients demanding
did the clients suffer chronic health issues
number of children in the family
whether cost was an issue
whether length of the process was a problem
whether billing problems occurred
whether clients paid their bill
whether a paramour existed
clients lacked financial resources
were there scheduling issues
did complicated parenting issues exist
did one party move out of state.
whether a financial professional was involved
the number of meetings required to settle
length of the process
cost per day
the existence of communication issues
attorney-client conflict *
domestic violence allegations
did a team member apply for litigation?
and did the clients have other legal troubles.
* Indicates factor was significantly associated with settlement cost
We used the cost of settling each case as the dependent variable in our statistical analysis. Cost was determined by combining the fees of two attorneys, the neutral professional(s), and court costs.
We subjected our data to a multiple regression analysis using client traits, case factors, and process characteristics as independent predictor variables to estimate the total cost of settlement. It should be mentioned that finding a significant association between a client, case, or process factor and the cost of settlement does not prove causation. Rather, this result only shows there is a correlation between the independent variable and the cost of settlement. We don’t know enough about the underlying psychological, financial, and legal structure of these cases to say anything meaningful about the causes of increased cost or unmet expectations. We can only claim we found client traits, case factors, and process characteristics that are significantly associated with increased cost of settling a collaborative divorce case. However, managing these client, case, and process factors should limit disruptions, lower the cost, and increase client satisfaction with the collaborative process.
We found six factors that are significantly associated with the cost of resolving a collaborative case. The overall statistical significance of the six independent variables, combined in a single multiple regression equation to predict cost, would occur by chance less than one time in ten thousand. This means that if we repeated our study 10,000 times, we would find a result this significant by chance only one time among the 10,000 repetitions. This is a highly significant result and means our analysis uncovered six important client, case, and process factors associated with the cost of settling a collaborative case.
The two most significant factors associated with the cost of resolving a collaborative case were whether the clients felt frustrated with the time required to resolve the dispute and whether one or both parties acted unilaterally by not following the code of conduct during the collaborative process. Each of these factors was positively associated with the cost of resolving the collaborative case and the result would have happened by chance less than one time in one hundred. This means if we performed this study 100 times, we would find a significant association between the parties feeling frustrated with the time required to resolve the dispute or the parties acting unilaterally and the cost of settlement one time out of one hundred repetitions by chance alone. Two other factors were also positively associated with collaborative settlement costs–the existence of disruptive client behavior and the presence of client mental health issues.
Finally, we found that whether the collaborative process met client expectations and the existence of attorney-client conflict were significantly negatively associated with cost of settlement.
Discussion of Our Results
If clients feel frustrated with the time required to get their divorce finished and if they act unilaterally during the collaborative process, these factors increased the cost of settlement. That makes intuitive sense, because feeling frustrated with the pace of settlement indicates that the collaborative process is not progressing smoothly. Also, clients acting unilaterally and ignoring the code of conduct causes fighting, which increases the cost of settlement. The collaborative team needs to carefully monitor these two factors during the entire collaborative process to ensure that the client’s expectations are met and they resolve their dispute without resorting to litigation.
We also found that when clients redid documents, second guessed their attorneys and dismissed their partner’s requests, or when client mental health issues existed, these factors were positively associated with increased settlement costs. Again, these results make intuitive sense. When clients are disruptive and not listening to their spouse during the collaborative process or when client mental health issues exist, it makes sense that the collaborative process would be interrupted and the cost of settlement increased. We always tell our clients “fighting costs extra” and try to minimize disruptions by calling time-out to allow the parties to “cool down”.
Finally, two factors were negatively associated with settlement costs. One negatively associated factor was whether expectations were met and the other was the existence of attorney-client conflict. It makes sense that when client expectations are met settlement costs would be lower. However, attorney-client conflict being negatively associated with the cost of settlement is puzzling. We expected that when attorney client conflict existed, the cost of settlement would be higher because this would reflect client management problems and be disruptive. However, our study showed the opposite result–the existence of attorney-client conflict was associated with lower settlement costs. That seems counterintuitive at first thought.
One possible explanation for the unexpected finding that attorney-client conflict is associated with lower settlement cost is that attorneys who are attempting to manage their client’s behavior during collaborative meetings create more conflict with their clients than attorney who are making no attempt to monitor and manage their clients’ behavior during joint meetings. Thus, when attorneys are not monitoring and managing their clients, there would be little attorney-client conflict, but the costs to settle would be higher because the un-managed clients would disrupt the collaborative settlement process. That makes some sense, because clients who are not under attorney management are more likely to become emotional, be disruptive, and fight with their spouse, raising the cost of the collaborative process.
A second possible explanation for the unexpected finding that attorney-client conflict is associated with lower settlement costs is that these clients are trying to accelerate the settlement process and are running into conflict with their attorneys who believe they are rushing to judgment without sufficient thought or preparation. We need further research to determine whether one of these explanations is correct.
Managing Client Expectations
There are several things collaborative attorneys can do to manage their client’s unrealistic expectations during a collaborative divorce. First, the attorney should listen and respond to client communications. Attorneys should take client concerns seriously and address them immediately, either individually or through the collaborative team. Additionally, the attorney should make it clear to their client that collaborative divorce is a service and take this responsibility seriously. Attorneys need to pay attention to their relationship with the client from day one until the case is concluded. Make it clear to the client that you are their advocate and are working to resolve their dispute in the most satisfactory way possible under the circumstances.
Other ways to manage client expectations include openly discussing how disruptive client behavior, such as fighting, anger, arguing, and taking unrealistic positions impedes the settlement process. Attorneys should emphasize the benefits of collaborative law and then deliver on their promises. Make certain the client understands the contributions of each team member so they appreciate why we use financial and mental health professionals. Formulate a schedule for clients and give them deadlines for completing and submitting results. The attorney should make certain to under-promise and over-deliver in every case so clients won’t be disappointed. Collaborative attorneys should monitor the process and encourage team members to complete assignments and be on time for meetings. Finally, as a courtesy to the clients, begin and end joint meetings promptly and make certain the team is present and prepared to participate in the collaborative process for each joint meeting.
We found that when clients are frustrated with the collaborative process, act unilaterally, don’t follow the code of conduct, or experience mental health issues, settlement costs increased. When client expectations are met or there is attorney-client conflict, settlement costs are lower. Our results make good intuitive sense, except we are not certain why attorney-client conflict should be associated with lower costs. None of the other client, case, or process factor was significantly associated with the cost of settlement. Our findings indicate that attorney management of client’s disruptive behaviors and their unrealistic expectations is associated with lower settlement costs, which should produce higher client satisfaction with the collaborative divorce process.
Paul Youngblood says
Some interesting insight in this article, especially the points about attorney-client conflict negatively affecting the cost. I admit, though, that some of my more successful litigation outcomes have come for my clients that I had to work hard against throughout the process. Perhaps having to constantly prove myself and my strategy to the client forced me to make better decisions and more finely tune my strategy? Hmmm.