This blog post is from Syd Sharples, LCSW, an Austin-based Mental Health Professional (MHP) and therapist in Austin. She sits on the Board of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.
It was 2005, and there I was, sitting in the jury box at the Travis County courthouse. In my ongoing efforts to develop my private therapy practice and identify referral sources in the legal community, I’d come across an attorney who was eager to recruit me to a new kind of divorce process. Would I come to a presentation to therapists on collaborative divorce? Before I knew it, I was signed up for an interdisciplinary training in Chicago. In January. (OK, I needed an excuse to visit my college roommate living in Chicago.)
When I thawed out from my weekend in Chicago, I went to lunch with Austin collaborative pioneers Jennifer Tull and Kris Algert. “We need to get you on a case,” Jennifer said, matter-of-factly. I had sort of thought I’d be able to observe, learn, maybe train a bit more. I don’t know where I thought I’d do this, since to date there had been no interdisciplinary cases in Travis County. But two weeks later, I was at my first Joint Collaborative Meeting. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Jennifer and Kris might have been at a bit of a loss, too, but they sure sounded like they’d done this thousands of times before.
For months, I sat near-mute in countless joint meetings. I’d have revealing one-on-one sessions with the clients, and my colleagues seemed appreciative of the observations and conclusions I was able to present to them following such meetings, but in those early days, my role was not at all evident to me. The attorneys seemed glad enough to have me there – “The clients behave better with you guys in the room,” one told me – but I don’t think any of us were too clear on how to maximize the resource our combined disciplines represented.
We’ve come a long way since then. Attorneys ceded control of the meetings to MHPs, MHPs learned to speak up and play a far more active role in the proceedings than I did in those initial meetings, and teams got increasingly comfortable giving each other feedback in debriefs. We worked together on multiple cases, and we began to understand how each other worked, what our specific skills and perspectives were, and how to best marshal our diverse resources. Everyone picked up new skills: attorneys and FPs learned about the DSM-IV, MHPs and FPs learned about the Family Code, and attorneys and MHPs learned to leave the spreadsheets to the FPs. And through it all, a rich community was created.