Clients frequently ask me in a first consult how long a collaborative divorce process takes. And I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes cases so different and why some move faster than others.
One of the biggest variables I’ve found is the set of expectations that clients bring into a case.
Some clients bring in very few expectations about the end result. Some bring in great expectations about the ultimate outcome.
In my experience, clients have more efficient, faster, and less expensive processes when neither party brings unrealistic or rigid expectations to a divorce process. The reason is that an attorney has to spend a lot of time managing these expectations and working to create the flexibility and open-mindedness that produce the best and most efficient results. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “managing client expectations” in seminars for family law attorneys.
The truth is that in all but the most extreme cases neither party can impose results or outcomes on the other, even (and maybe especially) in court. The vast majority of divorce and family law matters are resolved by mutual agreement. And mutual agreement obviously does not involve imposing outcomes on one another.
To be clear, expectations are different than hopes, concerns, and goals. Hopes, concerns, and goals are helpful and necessary for identifying what is important to a client. Rigid expectations are counterproductive because they reduce the ability to think creatively, brainstorm possible solutions, and work collaboratively to find the best solutions. Expectations often cause people to “anchor” on a particular strategy or outcome and develop tunnel vision. That causes people to miss important, beneficial, and helpful alternatives.
So, if you are seeking the most efficient, productive, and beneficial divorce negotiation process, then challenge yourself to avoid overly rigid or unrealistic expectations in the beginning. It will save you time, money, and stress in finding your family’s new path.
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius
Divorce is often a confusing, anxious time. People often report feeling as if they are the mercy of “the system”, the law, their spouse, the attorneys, or the courts in their divorce. This feeling of helplessness and loss of control only exacerbates the already difficult feelings of loss, grief, and worry that come with any divorce.
Ironically, people frequently respond to these feelings by relinquishing more control and letting their attorneys and the courts take over their divorce process. They are consulted periodically, but the attorneys handle the financial analysis, the negotiation, the strategic decision making and the other important parts of a divorce case. The courts dictate the what, when and where.
In my view, this is counterproductive because it only adds to the feelings of anxiety and loss of control. It provides a short-term feeling of relief because it takes some things off of your plate in the short term.
But, long-term, it leads to less satisfactory outcomes for clients. First, when you are not involved in the details of your divorce process, then you are far less likely to like your outcome over time. You will not remember the decision-making process that led you to your outcome. That may cause you to look back on your process and your outcome with confusion and doubt. Second, when you are intimately involved in your divorce process, you will have far more understanding of the financial, legal and personal dynamics at play in your divorce. You will not have to take your attorney’s word for what is going on and the possible solutions. Instead, you will be processing it as it happens and be involved in generating the solutions to the issues. That typically means that you will have a fuller understanding of how and why you reached the solutions that will shape your post-divorce life. In my experience that leads to clients feeling more in control, more satisfied, and less victimized after their divorce. Third, many clients grow frustrated because so much of the work an attorney does is outside of the presence of the client. A client will get a bill, but not have actually seen the work performed because they are largely detached from the work itself. In a collaborative process, the client is sitting beside their attorney for much of the time and has immediate knowledge of what their attorney is doing and how they are doing it. There is much less “mystery time” involved in your legal fees when you are an active participant in your case.
Certainly, some cases require you to involve the courts and litigation attorneys. And no one gets to dictate the terms of their divorce just as they would like.
But, there are enormous benefits to being an active participant in, and having a thorough understanding of the decisions and the decision-making process of your divorce. The only way that I know to do that is to participate in a divorce process that involves you not delegating the analysis, problem-solving and decision making, but rather taking an active role with your attorney in those facets. You do, and you understand.
I’ve got young kids and there are no books I enjoy reading to them more than Dr. Seuss. The lessons, philosophy and morality packed into each of his stories is truly genius.
I recently read the read The Zax again and was reminded how apropos it was for a divorce lawyer and my clients.
Here’s a refresher for you:
Just as the north going Zax and the south going Zax find themselves at odds and refuse to move, many divorce attorneys and their clients do the same in trying to resolve family disputes and divorces. And, just as the Zax waste their lives in intractable conflict while the world goes on around them, many clients are lead to waste time and money in intractable court battles or negotiations.
(A telling part of the story is when the South Going Zax boasts that he was taught to handle conflict this way in South Going (read, law) school!)
It is easy to see that the Zax are silly to act on their principles because their principles seem so inane to us. But, to the Zax, those principles are everything. Those principles mean as much to the Zax as our children, financial security and peace of mind mean to us.
So, the real lesson is that often in the world, even deeply held principle must give way to creative problem solving. Otherwise, we would all still be standing in front of the first Zax that we came across. And we would miss the opportunity to resolve the conflict so that we could again focus on our children, financial security and peace of mind.
If you are facing a divorce, or are in the middle of the divorce, think about whether you (or your attorney) are a Zax and what you are missing (or spending) while you stand there defending your principle. Perhaps refusing to budge is your best strategy, but perhaps altering course slightly will get you to your goal quicker.
Does your attorney argue or negotiate? Arguing is not the same as negotiating.
Negotiation, at its root, is problem solving. It is the act of solving joint problems.
Arguing, by contrast, is at its best the act of trying to persuade someone to adopt your point of view. It is the act of trying to convince someone else that you are right, and they are wrong. At its worst it is trying to convince someone that that you are worthy and they are not; they are bad, and you are good.
Negotiating involves a consideration of the other party’s perspective, and what they need from the negotiation. It involves some degree of effort to meet the other party’s needs in a resolution, in recognition that resolution is a two way street.
By contrast, argument ignores the other party’s part in a resolution. It treats the other party as if their agreement is not required for resolution. It says to the other person “You are an obstacle to me having what I want.” That may be true, but