Collaborative method gains momentum in divorce process

Northfield attorneys Michelle Lasswell, Britt Ackerman and Carl Arnold, Faribault Attorney Michelle Ibeling and Northfield psychologist Michelle Millenacker. recently attended an all-day training session in Edina in Collaborative Practice, hosted by the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota.

Michelle Ibeling said said the training reflected a shift in client interest and demand. “I have had several custody and divorce cases where the parties wanted an alternative to traditional litigation. They wanted to proceed more quickly and amicably than traditional litigation could provide. They also wanted to save money so that they could use it for the benefit of their children.”

The collaborative method is designed to minimize conflict while working towards a divorce resolution that addresses both spouses’ emotional, financial and legal needs as well as the needs of their children.

The new book The Collaborative Way to Divorce: the Revolutionary Method that Results in Less Stress, Lower Costs, and Happier Kids Without Going to Court by Stuart G. Webb and Ron Ousky, says the process works by:

 “Offering a dignified, effective, and highly strategic solution to one of life’s most difficult and emotionally charged situations, [Collaborative law] presents a completely new way—a smarter way—to get divorced.  [In the Collaborative process,] you, your spouse, and both of your lawyers agree to focus your efforts on civilly dissolving your marriage and dividing your assets, with no intention of ever going to court.” 

The book compares traditional litigation-based divorces with Collaborative Practice divorces: “Stressing cooperation over confrontation and resolution over revenge, the [Collaborative Practice] divorce is both highly strategic and beneficial in that: It gives the couple greater control over the outcome of their divorce; resolution is generally less expensive and quicker than going to court; it benefits the children by keeping them out of the controversy; and it helps the couple to maintain a sense of integrity and respect, which is often a priority when children are involved.” 

Someone considering the collaborative practice migh ask how it compares to traditional litigation-based divorce. In the collaborative method, the parties still hire their own attorneys and still get their final divorce papers approved by a court, but at the beginning of the process all four people (both clients and both attorneys) sign an agreement in which they commit to settling the case amicably and without going to court hearings.  Then, instead of proceeding through the divorce by waiting for the next court hearing (in Rice County, divorces often take more than two years in the traditional litigation method), the attorneys provide an out-of-court structure where the parties work through the issues (many clients mutually agree to hire an outside financial or other expert to help along the way) at their own pace. 

Collaborative practice is gaining momentum as a preferred method for reaching a divorce settlement without going to court, says Northfield Family Law Attorney Brad Frago, who is currently the facilitator of the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota’s South-of-the-River Regional Group. “In 1990, there were only a handful of Collaborative Law attorneys in Minnesota. In 2003 there were 50," he says.  "Today, Collaborative Law has spread throughout the U.S., Canada and around the world.  There are now approximately 150 collaborative law attorneys in Minnesota, most of whom are in the Twin Cities metro area.” 

Currently, there are six attorneys with offices in Rice County who are listed on the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website (listed alphabetically by last name): Britt Ackerman, Carl Arnold, Brad Frago, Michelle Ibelling, James Schlichting and Maren Swanson.  Attorney Maren Swanson focuses the family law portion of her practice primarily on collaborative law.  In the last year and a half, she has handled over a dozen cases using the collaborative method.  “Instead of going to court and presenting your client in the most positive light and the other party in the worst possible light, a collaborative divorce is much more realistic and balanced," she says. "Each party tends to acknowledgment the other party’s value and contribution to the family, and to respect the goals and needs of both parties.  The collaborative process puts the decision making power in the couple’s own hands.  There is much less fear of what might happen to each of them—either through the actions of their spouse or of a strange and foreign judicial system.  It is a much healthier and less stressful approach to divorce."

The collaborative method frequently includes utilizing a wide array of professional resources to help the parties resolve personal and financial issues.  Collaborative law embraces the integration of mental  health professionals into the process.  Psychologists and other mental health professionals can help a person function at a higher level during their divorce than they could without the added emotional support, which helps the process move along more effectively. 

Currently, Michelle Millenacker is the only local psychologist with training in the collaborative method.  “Death and divorce are the two most stressful events in people’s lives.  Anything mental health professionals can do to minimize stress and conflict and encourage consensus building, education and positive family ties is helpful and should be pursued” according to Millenacker.  She said that she attended the recent training because she believes in the Collaborative process and also stated that “Collaborative law brings the best of all resources to the members of the family involved in the divorce.” 

The Collaborative Practice process also often includes the use of financial and tax professionals who have expertise in issues specific to divorce in which most lawyers do not have training.  “We encourage a wide range of trained professionals such as psychologists, CPA’s and brokers to understand the issues involved in divorce as they relate to their field of expertise” said Brad Frago.  Brad also stated, “I encourage other professionals to embrace the collaborative method, including participating in Collaborative training, as a way to better serve their clients who are going through a divorce.”

The new book on Collaborative Practice mentioned in this article, The Collaborative Way to Divorce, was published during the summer of 2006.  It is available at the Northfield Public Library and the Faribault Buckham Memorial Library.  For information about collaborative practice on the internet, visit the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota at and then click on “About Collaborative Law”. 

The people in the attached photograph, from left to right, are Northfield Attorney Michelle Lasswell, Northfield Attorney Britt Ackerman, Faribault Attorney Michelle Ibeling, Northfield Attorney Carl Arnold, and Northfield Psychologist Michelle Millenacker.

Photo courtesy of Carl Arnold.