Getting your collaborative divorce case off to a good start is important because it may determine whether the case resolves or goes to litigation. There are several things attorneys can do at the beginning of their case to get things moving in the right direction. First, listen to your clients and understand their concerns. Next, refer your clients to potential team members so you can assemble a team that’s compatible with your clients. Then, discuss with the team and clients the pace of the collaborative process, paying particular attention to the client who doesn’t want the divorce, because he or she may want to slow the process. Formulate a plan with the team and clients so everyone agrees how to proceed. You may have to modify the plan as you proceed, but it will keep everyone on the same page as the divorce moves forward. Finally, explore and manage client expectations and keep them realistic.
Listen to Your Clients and Understand Their Concerns.
During your first meeting with a client, ask him or her open-ended questions about their concerns. What is most important or urgent to your client? What can wait until later in the process? Determine whether there are emotional issues, communication problems, parenting concerns, financial difficulties, or other issues that need to be addressed immediately. Consider recommending individual counseling if your client seems exceptionally emotionally distressed.
Refer Clients to Potential Team Members.
Discuss what type of mental health professional and financial professional your clients want to work with. Find out if they prefer working with a male or female and what approach your client wants the neutral financial professional to take. Give your client the names of a few neutral professionals they can call to find out which ones they like.
Establish the Team.
Once you receive feedback from your clients about which neutral professionals they prefer, meet with your opposing attorney to discuss which neutral professionals fit both clients’ needs. Consider what to do first and what can wait. If your clients need emotional assurance, arrange a meeting between the mental health professional and the clients—either together or individually, depending on how they get along. If they need financial advice, have them meet separately with the financial professional to discuss their financial goals frankly. Assess how well the clients get along when they are in the same room. Find out if there is any concern about family violence and deal with it immediately. Consider placing the clients in separate rooms during the first session if that seems advisable.
Talk with both clients about how quickly they want to proceed with the divorce. Pay particular attention to the client who doesn’t want the divorce, because he or she will generally be the slower person, and will usually determine the pace of the collaborative process. Discover how much time each client can devote to “homework.” Then, determine the pace that meets the needs of both clients.
Formulate a Plan.
Deciding where to begin and how quickly to move through the various issues is a joint decision for both clients. Share the team thinking with your clients and get feedback about their needs and preferences. Go through the road map and discuss, in general terms, the basic steps of the collaborative process. Get the clients to agree to a schedule and try to stick with it.
Modify the Plan as Needed.
Each case is unique so your plan will need to be modified to meet the individual needs of your clients as the case proceeds. Pay attention to the comments and behaviors of both clients and ask them how they are feeling about progress as you proceed.
Explore and Manage Client Expectations.
From the beginning it’s important to understand and manage your client’s expectations about the outcome of the divorce. Explain to him or her the likely cost, duration, and difficulties expected during the collaborative process. Try to set realistic goals and don’t allow your clients to develop unrealistic expectations—they will only make the entire process more difficult.