When I’m at a gathering and someone asks, ‘What do you do?’, I used to answer, ’I’m a divorce lawyer,’and you could almost feel the silence descend. Now I say, ‘I’m a Collaborative divorce lawyer,’ and there’s a blink of time when that extra word registers and curiosity kicks in.”
Yasgur explains that a Collaborative lawyer is one who contracts to help resolve this client’s divorce issues, but agrees with the client to withdraw from representation if the effort is unsuccessful. “We complete our cases more than 90% of the time”, he notes.
His process requires each partner to have their own Collaborative lawyer, and commonly, they will add neutral experts to assist the couple with the financial, communication, and parenting decisions they’ll need to make.
“Other professionals normally have a lower hourly rate than the lawyers, which instantly saves a couple money. And, they deal with these areas constantly and have specific education and training, so my client gets more bang for the buck, and, usually, more expertise.”
The heart of what we do is problem solving, he notes, and every member of the team is trained to approach client interactions that way. It’s not a fight, where lawyers more commonly respond to each other’s suggestions with a “yeah, BUT” instead of discussing the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing the suggestion.
Working with the neutrals doesn’t usually require the lawyers to be present—another time and money saver—and gives a couple the opportunity to work together, a skill they’ll need to develop after the divorce as they continue to raise their children.
“I don’t like to call them ‘parties,’” Yasgur says, referring to the couple who are divorcing. “They’re almost always parents. Calling them ‘parties’ puts them on opposite sides. Calling them ‘parents’ emphasizes their highest responsibility—their children.”
The human brain just isn’t wired to be creative when it’s defending itself against perceived threats, he observes. Yasgur spent his first 20 years dealing with those threats, but has spent the last 20 years creating safe conversations, so parents can use their energy to make good decisions for their families.
“One key to this is the use of neutral experts who support and educate couples about their family’s distinctive needs,” he says. “Parents ultimately might agree to something that no one has ever done in Minnesota before, but they legally can do that if it serves the children’s best interests. And along the way, they’ll learn how to talk to each other in a way that helps, rather than hurts, communication.”
Yasgur points specifically to two of the professionals he commonly turns to: the neutral coach/facilitator and the neutral child specialist. Both roles are filled by individuals who are licensed mental health professionals. Neither one is “doing therapy.” But that background is enormously helpful in teaching clients how to speak to—and hear—each other.
Neutral coach Lee Eddison observes that by the time the relationship has reached the point of divorce, she’s seeing people whose ability to trust and communicate with their partner has broken down. Her job is to help the couple in several areas:
· She can identify where the breakdowns have occurred and offer sound ways of getting past those spots to make good long-term decisions, i.e., to help them co-parent
· She normalizes for the couple and their team any difference of parental styles of processing information—one parent absorbs information on the fly, while the other may need time to ruminate
· She helps them articulate priorities and values
· She often sees different stages of emotional readiness for divorce, and supports each partner regardless of the stage they’re in, and
· She’s always looking for ways to decrease conflict and increase each partner’s feeling that they’ve been heard.
By functioning as a neutral, the coach has specific authority and permission from the couple to teach these things.
Teammate Deborah Clemmensen, a neutral child specialist, sees part of the coach’s value as providing a sophisticated management of the couples’ conflict by understanding its causes and dynamics, and being able to educate each member of the professional team, so that the “versions” given by each client aren’t mistaken for the whole picture. The coach’s perspective—and job description—are unique, holding the space for multiple perspectives about the family, and keeping the case and the team on track.
Clemmensen’s perspective on the parenting role is invaluable, Yasgur feels.
Starting with the knowledge that most parents are fully capable of parenting their children, that they care deeply about their children’s welfare, and worry about making good long-term decisions, she focuses on being the voice of the children, and helping their concerned parents to make those good decisions. Her desire is that the decisions they do make be developmentally appropriate and effective, so that the five-year-olds aren’t being raised by rules more appropriate for teenagers (and vice-versa). She also helps parents build in flexibility, because those five-year-olds will be teenagers one day.
Clemmensen often helps couples formulate their ‘We’ statement, by which they simultaneously tell their children that the couple will be divorcing, and reassure them about their future.
One of the most important things she does is to bring a child’s words into the process in a safe, respectful way. She gives the parents the benefit of their children’s feedback, simultaneously preventing the children from feeling excluded, and sparing them the “loyalty test” between the parents. Parents frequently learn something new about their child’s feelings.
Yasgur and Eddison see enormous value in the child specialist role. The most common question Eddison is asked is, “How will this (divorce) affect our kids?” The neutral child specialist understands this question—and the answers—better than perhaps any other team member. She is steeped in child development—how children see the world at different developmental stages, and, so, how the divorce impacts them. She’s perfectly placed to advise parents how to plan and act in order to lessen that impact. And when the parents are in conflict over these decisions, as a neutral, she can bring their focus back to the children’s interests.
As with the rest of the Collaborative team, the guiding principle becomes keeping the children at the center of the process rather than putting them in the middle! As with any neutral role, both the coach and the child specialist act with unusual authority—not the authority to make decisions for the family, but the authority that derives from knowing that these professionals are there only to act in the family’s best interests. They are hired by Mom and Dad to work for Mom and Dad, and advise Mom and Dad when a shift in perspective or behavior (or both) will get them closer to their goals for their kids.
Reach Steve Yasgur to explore your options at yazlaw.com,
or (952) 893-9393