My Blog

My blog is meant to inform but its primary purpose is not to be informative. It is about the law but it is not solely about the law but also about those places the law does not go. The law is the platform from which I dive. My blog is about my opinions but is not primarily about my opinions since I often temper these to the subject matter on hand, not to mention the imagined audience. Quite often when I open a subject which is related to the law for discussion, I find myself in a place I never meant to be, or to go, as if the subject takes on a life of its own. I write articles based on what I do for a living, and I am a family lawyer, but of course that is not all I am. I find that when I engage with a subject, and use writing to express my thoughts, that quite often the journey is more interesting than the end and that what I thought I was writing about is not what I wrote about at all. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life. I write, therefore, to throw some light into the dark, to increase my understanding and by extension hopefully, other people’s understanding of what often seems incomprehensible, to enliven the dull so my spirit does not sag and to throw some humour at what is often deeply sad so that I can, or maybe, dare I say hopefully, “we”, can gain perspective. I doubt I succeed but the effort is honest.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The First 7-Way Collaboration ....

When I trained as a collaborative practitioner in 2005, I was enormously enthusiastic about collaboration both as to what it had to offer me as a practitioner in terms of quality of life and what it had to offer the clients, namely a better way of resolving issues. Still dipping my toe into the water was tough even though I would have been quicker off the mark than most in that regard. I had an itch when I emerged from my training that I knew very little about the coach and what the coach might contribute to the process. In particular, I had no clear idea who the coaches were precisely, I just knew that we did not have them in Ireland as far as I could tell. From the outset, I had a strong sense that I needed to know exactly who the coaches were and what they could do. Nonetheless, I ploughed on and started to collaborate.

My first collaborative case was a positive experience in many respects. Our definition of success at that time might well have been largely confined to whether or not we brought the case home. I cannot put my hand on my heart though and say it was a transformative experience. I had a great client who was exceedingly grateful that she was afforded an opportunity to settle her affairs in a non-confrontational manner so I was very lucky. I have asked myself many times since then whether or not my niggling sense of disappointment about that and many cases since then is based on my own unreasonable expectations of this process, that is until very recently.
Meanwhile, I did my research into the coaches and found out who they were and tried to get a handle on what they might contribute. I attended sufficient workshops and read books and acquired a good idea of what they might contribute. We trained mental health professionals in Cork and started to work with them. We tried many permutations and combinations and still I was dissatisfied. Then about 18 months ago my colleague Helen Collins and I set up the West Cork Collaborative Practice Group. At the time of its inception the WCPG (now called “Pathways”) was unique in that it had more members from the non-legal community than from the legal community. From the outset this set a different tone and standard in West Cork than elsewhere. Helen like myself was convinced from the time of her training that coaches were an essential ingredient without which we should not practise however, I did persuade her to take a case with me for which we had one coach, the much lamented late Cormac Lankford. Cormac like ourselves was dipping his toe into the water and he was operating as a sole coach without the faintest idea of the one coach model which it subsequently emerged was quite different to what we were doing at the time. In any event Helen and I did bring that case home. Still we were not entirely happy....

Pathways talked at length about the need for all of us to be confident that we were saying the same things to the clients and how we might structure that. We also spoke a great deal about screening, finding out which clients were suitable for the process and which were not. We all believe in this way of working and so we want it to succeed both for our clients and for ourselves. As practitioners working in a tight community, we are conscious that failure for whatever reason does not send out the right signal. As a result of these discussions we decided on a way of practicing in West Cork. It is our experience that family law clients tend to come to lawyers first rather than to any other practitioners. We collaborative lawyers were then trying to interest the client in this way of working as well as screen them for suitability, give legal advice and manage them emotionally. As a package this did not work and so we decided that a better way of handling this would be for the lawyers to see if the clients were interested or not, give them a handle on what would be involved in this work and then refer them to a coach who would do the screening before the clients signed up for anything. This works for our point of view and from the client’s point of view. For us, it means that we lawyers have another opinion as to client’s suitability but most importantly the difficulties we are likely to encounter in this particular collaboration. This affords us an opportunity to plan and strategise to maximise the possibilities of success. From the client’s point of view it is a far less expensive way emotionally and financially of finding out if they are suitable to do this kind of work then starting it and then discovering their lack of suitability. Another unintended bonus of this method is that it allows us lawyers to offer a client a viable and inexpensive way for them to get their spouse to explore this option. It is much easier to persuade a reluctant spouse to go to a coach to talk about the marriage than to go to a Solicitor or lawyer. Once the coaches have reported back to each other and to the lawyers about the clients, the lawyers and the coaches can then work out a case strategy. Quite often the clients will continue with the coaches for a few weeks or more to do a personal mission statement and a joint mission statement. This is another Pathways practise and it is invaluable. The experience of doing a mission statement focuses the clients on what is important to them individually and as a couple. It is their first exercise in trying to agree something and it starts the dialogue between them which will then continue with their lawyers. The mission statement is sent to the lawyers and the lawyers work can then commence. At that stage the clients will sign the Participation Agreement but the reality is they have already heavily invested in the process emotionally at that stage. Later, when you find yourselves in difficult choppy waters in the course of the collaboration which you invariably do, being able to re-read the mission statement to the clients can have a great effect in bringing them back to basics. When Helen and I work together, we like to sometimes just wind up a meeting by reading the mission statement.

Every community have its own cultural norms and difficulties and an important task for each practise group is to look at the personal difficulties that their group will encounter and try and find practises that meet those cultural norms and difficulties.One such that we experience here in West Cork and which may be common to all cultures are the “people outside the tent”. People outside the tent are generally family members or friends who do not understand the collaborative process and when their loved one talks to them find it difficult to get a handle. Such people are naturally concerned for their loved one and quite often angry with the partner for the hurt they are causing and as such they will usually position strongly to the detriment of the collaborative process.

We have talked about this problem and have come up with a solution. We invite the adult children of the couple or extended family eg in laws, parents or best friends to come and meet with both lawyers and coaches before we start so we can explain the process to them and what the couple will be trying to achieve and the sort of support they might give. This acknowledges to those people the importance they have in the life of their loved ones and tends to mollify them somewhat and it explains the process to them and ensures their understanding. An unintended though obvious benefit is that it extends the knowledge of collaborative process further into the community.

An important part of the extended family and network understanding would be that just because this process makes sense and has high aspirations , it does not mean that the couple who are engaged in the process will always be well behaved and rational in their approach. People are people no matter what process they are involved with and this is emotional stuff.

Another issue that concerned us very early on was how the advent of a third party love interest in the middle of a collaboration had the potential to destabilise the process. After much discussion we decided that an intimate relationship arising either before or during the process which was not known by the other party had to be disclosed in the same way as financial matters are disclosed. However, even with the disclosure if there are no coaches it may still prove too difficult for the lawyers to handle the emotions that flow from this event.

Several cases and many learning outcomes later, I had still not arrived at that elusive transformative experience until Helen and I decided to take on a case that caused us much trepidation. We had no expectations of this case and in fact our whole focus from the outset was just to get these clients from A to B which as far as we were concerned would in itself be a major achievement. This was a marriage of long duration within a tight knit small East Cork community. The hurts of the marriage were very deep for Hannah, the wife. The husband, John, in contrast could not see any reason why the marriage was ending. He had little insight into his wife’s hurt and if he had knowledge of it he certainly had no sympathy with it. He was not a man given to self reflection. He was a man deeply devoted to his two children. He worked extremely hard and always had and felt he had fulfilled his part of the marriage contract fully. Hannah, as is often common in these situations, felt unappreciated and disrespected. She felt that there was no real communication between them. She decided to return to her former profession which she had stopped on marriage as was common at that time. She found in work the stimulation she had been lacking and started to come out of herself and integrate in her community. John saw no reason for the return to work and was threatened by it. Ultimately Hannah decided to call time on the marriage. This perhaps compounded a sense of growing victimisation on John’s part and that combined with his natural personality made him a very difficult client to handle. Much of what he heard from us about the process made little or no sense to him and I think he thought that much of it was only so much hocus pocus. He just wanted to get it over with since this is where he found himself not from any choice on his part. Persuading this man that he needed a coach was very difficult indeed but we succeeded. In the beginning, John found it difficult to see the point of the coaches especially the idea that he needed to attend with them regularly. He went in the beginning, got together with his wife and did their joint mission statement and I gather from the coaches that was no picnic but then his attitude was well thats that, I am finished with them and now the lawyers need to finish up this show.

When we told him that we were planning on keeping the coaches involved in each meeting, I thought he would leave but he stayed with a great deal of fussing and opposition. She, by contrast, had no difficulty with the idea of the coaches and fully understood why we needed them but at the same time could be extremely positional when it came to property and financial issues and did not recognise this in herself. She had been uninvolved in the family business or finances to any great degree and that lack of understanding made her wary of her husband and money and translated into her adopting strong positions around the finances. Getting her to communicate with him in a non-aggressive way about money was very hard. And so we started. At the first meeting John announced that he was taking on a new partner in the business. This was the first anybody heard of this including his own solicitor and it did not press the right buttons with the wife. We decided we needed a financial specialist and then we had the job of persuading him that we needed a financial specialist. We succeeded with the help of the coaches. The second and third meetings had to re-scheduled two and three times while John went incommunicado for reasons that were never made quite clear but which did not inspire confidence in Hannah. While this was going on Hannah was threatening me that she was going to walk if he did not show up to the next meeting. With the help of the coaches the show stayed on the road. At the 3rd meeting John said that his business was doing extremely badly and he had now decided to close it. At this point we decided that we needed the financial specialist at every meeting from that point forward. That was the best decision we ever made. Bringing a male financial specialist balanced the energy at the meetings. Put more simply, John had another man to relate to which for a man like him was key. Prior to this John would come to every meeting with a “puss on him”. This is an Irish expression for a sour face. Hannah would come with an expression of scepticism. It did not make for happy encounters. Being surrounded by a gaggle of women only compounded John’s sense of the whole business being a lot of old.... but when the FS appeared that all changed. The FS was a man slightly older than John who was clearly a man’s man but who also clearly thought this process was worth pursuing. John’s demeanour changed remarkably over the next 3 meetings. He became more forthcoming which in turn made Hannah less suspicious. Hannah was able to have many of her financial questions answered by the FS who did not mind a bit being quizzed unlike John who saw his wife’s questions as accusations of dishonesty.

Both parties started to relax. And then the miracle, the transformative moment, John made a gesture towards his wife that none of us would ever have thought possible and from that point on even though none of us dared to speak it, we knew we would bring it home. In the end, we did not just bring it home though the 7 of us cooked up a storm for this couple and their family. Our combined energies created a truly deep and lasting resolution. At our last meeting John turned around and said that he could now see how different this process was but what we did not tell him was, so could we!

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