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Collaborative Law

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the October 4, 2011 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

OK—you’ve decided to part ways. Whether it be a divorce or a break-up of a business, you just can’t make it work. Are you the best of friends? No, but you’ve both come together and decided that ending the relationship is best and you both want to come out of this with your dignity, and hopefully your savings account, intact. You just can’t bear the thought of a long drawn out process, and the horror stories you’ve heard about hiring an attorney can make people weak in the knees. So what now?

Collaborative law — a dispute resolution process that provides individuals representation and keeps businesses and people out of court.

Below are some common questions and some helpful resources for those with interest in the collaborative law approach.

1. My husband and I have agreed to divorce. We don’t hate each other, but just can’t live together anymore and have decided it’s best for the kids if we end the marriage. Frankly the kids are our top priority, and we have always agreed on this. There are several things we’ve already agreed on, including that we both want this to go as quickly and painlessly as possible for all of our sakes. What is collaborative law, and would this approach work for our situation?

It may very well be what you’re looking for.

Collaborative law practice is another option for divorcing couples rather than the traditional litigation route. It allows people to resolve a dispute without going to court and helps the parties keep the focus on their most important goals and concerns—here the happiness and welfare of the children. In the collaborative process, clients agree NOT to go to court. Each party still has its own representation, but the process is much less adversarial with the parties, rather than a judge, making a final decision as to the best outcome. Each party comes to the table to communicate its needs and concerns, and the parties will then work with each other to find a solution that benefits all those involved.

2. My wife and I are planning to divorce. We don’t have any children, but have a jointly owned business which has to this point been relatively successful. I know we’ll have to call in people to try to sort out all the “financial stuff.” A collaborative lawyer wouldn’t be able to help with this, right?

WRONG!

It’s very surprising how many things can be worked out during a collaborative process, especially once the right support people are involved. The collaborative approach doesn’t just involve the parties and their attorneys, but also can include financial experts, business valuators, or any other professional if needed. If the two of you can agree to work together and communicate openly and respectfully, this may be a way to maintain a working relationship and preserve the business you’ve both worked so hard for.

3. Is a collaborative practice approach only for divorce?

Absolutely not. While a majority of cases using the collaborative approach have been divorces, it is a constantly growing field. Collaboration may be used to resolve family disputes, problems/disputes in business relationships, or difficulties in employer/employee relations as well. Any relationship in which it may be beneficial for the parties involved to maintain a working relationship or open lines of communication may benefit from this approach.

4. What factors make it more likely for collaboration to succeed or fail?

Open, honest, respectful communication is key. You may not agree on every point, but you need to at least be willing to agree to hear and respect the other party’s viewpoint and agree to work together to find the best solution for all parties involved.

If your situation is one in which either party is reluctant to communicate or cooperate, if the parties fundamentally do not trust each other or the professionals involved, or if one party is suffering from mental health issues, collaboration may not work.

5. What if a collaborative approach doesn’t work?

Statistics show that disputes handled through collaboration do usually result in some form of settlement agreement. The collaboration agreement however, states that if the dispute resolution process falls apart, none of the attorneys involved will litigate the matter. The parties would then follow the traditional litigation approach.

6. Is it cheaper?

The costs of handing a dispute through collaboration are much more manageable. While it is NOT a free process, clients generally feel that their lawyer’s fees were reasonable and were less expensive than litigation. If experts are necessary, it becomes much more reasonable to use a team approach than for each party to pay individually to retain their own experts.

HOW DO I FIND A COLLABORATIVE LAW PRACTITIONER?

Information about collaborative law practice can be found on the Collaborative Law Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania (CLASP) website (www.clasplaw.org.)

The Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service is also able to refer out a collaborative law practitioner. For a referral, contact the referral service at 412-261-5555.