Nick Augustine No Comments

Whatever Gets Us There

The first time I used a neutral mental health professional in a collaborative law divorce, my entire idea of what it meant to be a good lawyer changed.

You know the clients:  My client, the mother, was the destitute SAHM (stay-at-home-mom), angry that the father thought the dream could be so easily tossed away.  The father was the rigid engineer, incredulous that the mother didn’t see this coming.

You know the lawyers:  Still new to the process and well meaning, I defaulted to throwing down the court gauntlet when the going got tough.  Opposing counsel wore her collaborative law experience with shaming righteousness to any who did not follow the exact process rules.

Although all were hopeful and well-meaning, this was a scenario waiting to go wheels off.  But this time, we had a secret weapon – the communications facilitator.

When the preliminaries were over with and we started to delve into the hard work, my client mom burst into tears leading to a chain reaction in which the dad tightened up like a vise, and the two attorneys  ducked their heads in discomfort waiting for the other to declare the session was over.  Attorneys aren’t trained to think in terms of managing emotion to move forward.  Rather, emotion is the signal that we have an impasse which requires a “time out” so we can perform some functions from the comfort of our offices which then lead to some action in the comfort of our courtrooms.  It’s what most of us were trained to do in law school and for many it’s a simpler, easier way to get from point A to point B.

As I was about to lift my head up and throw down my proverbial gauntlet, I heard the facilitator rustling out of her chair. Both attorneys looked up in surprise to watch her calmly move to the box of Kleenex and gently place it in front of the mom.  The facilitator put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and said “I know you think with your heart and that makes it hard when you must discuss these difficult things. That’s OK.” (See Dad tightening up further as the facilitator continued) “ So if you need to take breaks to let your head catch up to your heart, we can do that. Do you need to take a break?” (Hand still on the mom’s shoulder). Mom grabs the proffered Kleenex, and says “no, I’m OK now”.  Dad’s head pops up in surprise, attorneys jaws drop in amazement and the facilitator calmly goes back to her seat at the head of the table poised to resume the session.

The weird thing (at least to the lawyers) was that Mom was OK.  Mom needed her feelings acknowledged and accepted.  The facilitator knew that moving the mom forward made the “special attention” given to the mom OK with Dad. The facilitator knew that taking control of the uncomfortable emotion in the room would be OK with the attorneys.   As a result, in less than 10 minutes time, we avoided bringing the session, and the entire collaborative process, to a screeching halt.

Prior to this, I didn’t have the tools in my toolbox to know how to pull it back together after an emotional “incident” and might have run back to the comfort of pleadings and courtrooms.  After this, I might not have stayed the collaborative course to the successful conclusion had I not seen this magic for myself –  because the later sessions were often just as emotional, very bumpy, sometimes grueling,  and fraught with the delays of inexperience and denial. But over the next 3 months we got these parents through it culminating in an agreement that worked for their family until their children were grown.

Thereafter, I never thought about any of my cases the same way.  I no longer believed I should or could be all things to all clients in all cases. They were best served if I honed into the specific professional who was needed for their individual issues.  Why should I put together a financial spreadsheet or inventory when a financial professional can do it faster, cheaper and more competently? Is it best practice to “go with my gut” when advising on a parenting plan for someone else’s child?  My clients were more grateful, I was paid more consistently, and the practice of law was far less tedious and treacherous when I relied on a customized, interdisciplinary team of professionals.

As members of AFCC, you already have this mindset.  When did it “change” for you? Think about those other professionals that make your practice, and your life, that much…well….MORE.  Remember that feeling of delight when you find others of like mind doing good works…no…GREAT works? Share your “Ah ha” moment.

Tell us your story.