It has become increasingly common for the Mental Health Professional (MHP) on teams to meet with clients prior to the initial joint meeting. This practice initially began as a mechanism for assessing client fit for the collaborative process, typically when one, or both, of the attorneys had some concerns about the appropriateness of the clients for the process. However, while the value of such screening meetings is clear, over time this practice has expanded beyond its initial purpose and has become a more standard procedure in many cases and for many teams. Why?
Regardless of whether your MHP chooses to meet in advance with both clients jointly, or with each one individually, such contact establishes a relationship with the MHP right from the beginning. We know that for many clients that first joint meeting is intimidating and can be overwhelming. Each client knows only his or her own attorney. Providing the clients with another friendly face in the room is helpful in managing their anxiety and mitigating many of their concerns. Meeting with the MHP in advance is especially useful for creating momentum, especially if the first joint meeting is scheduled further out. The MHP is able to do their introduction, review their role and answer any questions that the clients may have, while beginning the educational process. Finally, such a meeting gives the MHP first-hand knowledge of the history, dynamics and any potential concerns being expressed by the clients. We look at relationships through a different lens, and being able to identify the potential “mines in the minefield” even before the process has begun can be extremely beneficial.
As this practice has become more typical, we have seen significant benefits. Clients appear far more comfortable at the initial joint meetings, and more quickly engaged in the collaborative process. The team has a wealth of information early on that allow us to be better prepared and more mindful and effective in our approach. If we know the “hot spots” before the initial meeting, we are in a better position to anticipate and manage the potential mines before, or if, they are exploded. Finally, by having the MHP meet with the clients in advance, he or she can identify those clients for whom collaborative divorce may not be appropriate OR who might need a modification to the traditional collaborative approach.
If you are planning on using this strategy, here are some procedural suggestions:
- Only do so after the initial team conference call which provides the MHP with each attorney’s perspective/background information and where it is a team decision to proceed with such a meeting
- Make sure that a Confidentiality Agreement (available on the CDT website) is prepared that covers the MHP and all team members and is sent to the clients prior to the MHP meeting for signature (and be sure your MHP has it)
- The MHP can send a “Hello From Your MHP” email to the clients, copying all team members, to schedule this meeting (contact me for samples)
- Subsequent to meeting the MHP should send an update to team (either with or without clients copied depending on the MHP’s typical approach)
- Provide updated information based on this initial meeting to the team in a telephone conference or pre-meeting
As an MHP who frequently meets with clients prior to the initial joint meeting, I wholeheartedly endorse such practice. The value added by such meetings is notable in those cases where I had that opportunity and those where I did not. If this is not a standard practice in your community, I strongly recommend letting your MHP “say hello” and giving it a try.