Sunday, August 24, 2003

Can lawyers work out a kinder, gentler divorce?

A lawyer friend once told me criminal court is mostly bad people on their best behavior. And domestic relations court is mostly good people on their worst behavior.

Attorney Mary Ellen Malas had seen plenty of the latter. Soon-to-be-divorced couples splitting up property was a terrible thing to watch. Let's say a $15,000 dining room set and a $5,000 couch were at stake. "I've seen a woman choose her husband's golf clubs instead."

Bitter. Punitive.

And lawyers on both sides were right there screaming along with their clients. Just the way they learned to do in law school. "It was traditional beat-the-hell-out-of-each-other tactics. We're trained to go for the jugular," she says. "Fighting" for the person who'd hired them. Jousting with the "adversaries," another lawyer and another client.

Worse, most of the time, material goods are the least of it.

In 85 percent of divorce cases Mary Ellen handles, children are involved. Even those of us who cherish our golf clubs would concede that our kids deserve something better than to be bargaining chips or cannon fodder in divorce wars.

"There has to be a better way," Mary Ellen was thinking. Then she got a call from fellow attorney Bea Larson and "a light bulb came on." There was a better way.

Some local attorneys were forming something called Collaborative Family Law. A collaborative of lawyers? Isn't that something like a poverty of bankers? Or a modesty of movie stars? Just doesn't seem to fit.

But she shows me the list of those who signed up. Heavy hitters. Randal Bloch, Gloria Haffer, David Peck, Timothy Hickey, Michael Barrett. Big law firms. Strauss & Troy. Keating, Muething & Klekamp. Taft, Stettinius & Hollister. Thompson Hine & Flory. Frost Brown Todd.

Since 1997, these attorneys - now about 60 or them - agree to work for a "principled, negotiated settlement without the threat or use of court action," according to the Web site ( Two lawyers, two clients. One team. Everybody working together.

Lawyers take special training in mediation, "education that encourages co-operative and noncombative behavior." The "team" gets together to hash out details of the split without the complication of getting on a busy court docket. Uh-oh. What about billable hours?

Hourly rates are the same, but they can do more cases, she responds. And, there are plenty of divorces to go around. The National Center for Health Statistics reports one in three marriages will end in divorce during the first 10 years.

"I hate divorce," says Mary Ellen, who describes herself as "freakishly, happily married." Occasionally, she has referred clients to marriage counselors. "But some people really need to get out. We want to help them untie the knot without ugliness and walk out of it as good co-parents." She calls it "helping people at the worst time of their life."

Boy, she is really going to take a lot of fun out of lawyer jokes. I may even have to start thinking of divorce attorneys in a new way.

Good people. On their best behavior.


E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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