It sounds like an ideal way to resolve a difficult situation — a healthy, sane method to divorce, with spouses and lawyers agreeing in advance to forgo threats and theatrics.
But where there are lawyers, there are lawsuits, and the Circuit Court of Cook County is now weighing one that puts a spotlight on collaborative divorce, a fast-track method of ending a marriage that proponents say reduces the costs and mudslinging of traditional cases.
Rather than painfully hashing out terms in open court, couples work with lawyers trained in the collaborative method, using neutral finance experts and life coaches to reach an agreement before presenting it to a judge in a neat little package. Failure to reach an agreement means the spouses will be required to hire new counsel, creating a financial incentive for both the couple and the attorneys to cooperate.
The method seemed like a no-brainer to Mark Schacht and Sari Hart of Evanston. Both physicians in their 50s, they have three children and had just buried Dr. Hart’s father. The idea of a drama-free divorce appealed to them both.
But they didn’t make it through the process and are now spending even more time in the courtroom.
In his lawsuit, Dr. Schacht accuses Dr. Hart’s attorney, James Galvin, and his firm, Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP in Chicago, of dragging their feet in order to “add to the cost of billing.” This, he says, violates a main tenet of collaborative law, which requires attorneys to operate in good faith and in a timely way.
David Novoselsky, the lawyer representing Dr. Schacht, would not comment on his case but criticized the process in general.
“It’s a boondoggle,” he says. “Collaborative law is the North Shore trend of the week. If you have two reasonable people and two decent lawyers who are interested in helping clients, you don’t need to go through this formal process that’s been named ‘collaborative law.’ ”
Mr. Galvin, one of the founders of the Collaborative Law Institute in Illinois, which certifies attorneys to practice the method, says his client was happy with the process. It “allows clients to make decisions about their lives instead of lawyers or a judge,” he says. “It takes two people to make it work and one to make it not work.”
Michele Lowrance, a Cook County Circuit Court judge and author of “The Good Karma Divorce,” supports the use of collaboration or mediation.
“Divorce is an emotional process,” she says. “It’s not regular law, and collaboration addresses that.”
Still, she hasn’t yet signed off on a collaborative divorce in court. “I think people thought it would be catching on more than it is,” she says. But as bigger law firms begin to offer it, it may be “turning the corner,” she adds. “People think it’s in fashion.”
The jury is still out on whether collaborative law is a cure-all for ugly divorce. The method, developed 20 years ago in Minnesota, has been used for a decade in Illinois, with incremental increases in the number of cases each year as more lawyers and clients become aware of it. Though it has attracted some privacy-conscious wealthy couples — the late Roy Disney, Robin Williams and Madonna have all used it — just about 7% of the more than 57,000 divorces filed in Illinois in 2008 were done by the process. Attorneys estimate that about 5% of couples who start with collaborative law abandon it for a traditional approach at some point during the process.
The Illinois Bar Assn. hasn’t taken a position on the practice. Choosing to go that route limits the couple’s selection of lawyers to those who are certified. Though costs can vary widely, a regular divorce might cost $78,000, with an attorney working five hours a week at $300 per hour for a year, the typical length of a case. An ideal collaborative case costs half that by expediting the process. All the necessary financial numbers must be presented at the first meeting, with no return trips to court with motions requesting more documents.
The process self-selects for more agreeable attorneys and couples who are willing to submit to its rules. But with scarring, bank-account-draining, “War of the Roses”-style divorce tactics in mind, its proponents say offering other ways to handle divorce is necessary.
“The success rate far outweighs the failures,” says Sandra Crawford, president of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois in Glenview. As of this year, the institute will be able to train Illinois attorneys in the process; until now, Wisconsin was the closest place to become certified.
“If there’s criticism coming from the public, that needs to be tempered with the understanding that (divorcing couples) are in a stressful situation up there with losing a child,” she says. “If it’s criticism from within the profession, it’s from people who aren’t educated about it, so I’m skeptical.”
|Theresa Beran Kulat, a collaborative-law attorney, used the method to divorce her husband. “We’ve had a good relationship, and our kids have benefited,” she says. Photo: Erik Unger|
Clients from successful collaborative divorces appreciate that the process, often resolved within nine months, didn’t do a number on their psyches.
Danielle Engstrom, 55, says her smooth divorce allowed her and her ex-husband to remain friends, even talking on the phone now and then. If there’s a criticism, she says the process moved too quickly for her liking — though she realized she could have slowed it down.
“I felt hurried,” says Ms. Engstrom, a Frankfort aromatherapist and provider of alternative health care. “I had never seen all our assets and lifestyle expenses laid out on paper all together like that. It’s not that it was hidden from me; it just wasn’t presented that way before. It was hard to process it all.”
For Dean Karousos, 36, his six-month divorce could have gone even faster for his taste — and avoided some extra costs.
“It was as peaceful and amicable as divorce can be, I guess,” says Mr. Karousos, a regional sales executive at GM Nameplate in Chicago. “As far as speed and the overall experience, I can’t tout it enough. But sometimes I think the meetings weren’t necessary. There were issues that could have been accomplished on e-mail or by phone without getting all four parties — clients and attorneys — together.”
EASY WAY OUT?
Collaborative divorce law has divided the legal community to some extent, too; not all attorneys who seek training are approved to practice it.
“You have to have a lawyer who can put away the competitive instincts of litigation and go into problem-solving mode,” says Don Schiller, senior partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck and an expert on divorce law. “Most lawyers who go into trial work are advocates and tend to want to win for clients.”
His firm has started up a collaborative law arm — Jenner & Block LLP has done the same — in an effort to offer alternatives to litigating a divorce. Mediation is another alternative.
“The only thing you’ll win for a client in the collaborative process is accomplishing a divorce without acrimony that’s evenhanded, and hope for no more than that,” Mr. Schiller says. “The question mark is what’s evenhanded. Everyone has their own interpretation of what’s fair.”
Leon Finkel, of Chicago-based Berger Schatz, is among divorce attorneys who have taken cases of parties who tried but failed to divorce collaboratively.
He points to a recent case in which the husband, an orthodontist, spent $35,000 on a collaborative divorce case that went on for a year before he quit and went the litigation route. Mr. Finkel said his client felt meetings were held with his ex-wife and their lawyers simply to rack up costs.
“He felt (collaborative) lawyers had an obligation to tell him it wasn’t working . . . but instead they dragged it on,” Mr. Finkel says.
The method, he says, creates a cottage industry for lawyers who can’t stomach the stress and aggravation of trying a case and “does nothing to serve the client at all.”
Collaborative law experts attempt to weed out failures by screening potential clients to determine if they can dissolve their marriage peaceably.
Theresa Beran Kulat, a collaborative-law attorney, speaks from firsthand experience to potential clients in her Downers Grove office. She, her ex-husband and their lawyers sat around the dining room table hashing out the details of a divorce that included two young children.
“It set us up for future communication to be better than if we had been hitting each other over the head with clubs,” she says. “We’ve had a good relationship, and our kids have benefited.”
Ms. Kulat, 48, says she can tell early in the process whether a couple is right for it.
“If I hear either party say, ‘Oh, I’ll make her pay’ or ‘I’ll make him pay,’ that’s a red flag,” she says. “If people have been checking each other’s e-mails or hiring private investigators to stalk the other person, there’s not enough underlying trust.”
Perhaps surprisingly, infidelity isn’t a deal-breaker for collaboration, she says: “If someone has done it once, and they’ve moved on, that’s OK. It’s the continuous lying; they say, ‘Oh no, I’m not seeing anyone,’ but then you learn he is. That’s not going to work.”
A hurdle in evaluating any method of divorce is that even at its most agreeable, it’s still traumatic.
Collaborative law worked for Susan Schwallie, 39, a food market researcher in the Chicago office of NPD Group Inc. who divorced in 2007. Her experience was positive, but she still can’t help but feel she got the short end of the marriage deal.
“No matter how you do it, you feel that way,” she says. “It’s not just financial or material loss. It’s a loss all the way around.”
©2010 by Crain Communications Inc.
The 10-year-old boy looked at Judge Michele Lowrance and told her he wished he was dead. That way, he reasoned, his parents would stop fighting. Because all they seemed to fight about was him.
That little boy’s pain inspired Lowrance to write “The Good Karma Divorce,” published by HarperOne and on sale since earlier this month. For three and a half years, Lowrance worked through weekends and holidays — “soldiered by discipline,” as she puts it — to create what she hopes is a guide to help couples survive the “tsunami” of divorce.
And parents aren’t the only audience for the book, Lowrance said. She’s been astounded by reaction from many adult children of divorce who have read the book and told her how it opened their eyes to their parents’ experience.
“It’s not like any other text,” said Lowrance, a Circuit Court domestic relations judge since 1995. “It’s a fusion of practical advice from the bench from somebody who sees it every day, fused with psychology, philosophy, and a little bit of spirituality.”
Lowrance, herself a child of divorce and a divorce survivor, arranged the book around a four-point therapy system: 1. creating a personal manifesto 2. downgrading and neutralizing anger and turning negativity into positive action 3. skills for “heroic” parenting and 4. transformative confrontation, or how to manage conflict.
Lowrance did draw on disguised real-life cases for the book, but she went beyond her courtroom experience. She also delved deeply into research as sophisticated and nuanced as the role of the brain’s neurons in dealing with negativity and anger.
“In the anger chapter, I have lots of skills: I call them transformational warm-ups,” she said. “I believe you are in transformation, and in addition to the legal process, you need a transformational process, not a Smith and Wesson.”]]>
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As a judge in family court, my daily hope is that break ups become less common. But the facts do not support my desire, and the cultural reality is that the national wedding bouquet is soon to be constructed of short-blooming day lilies. Unfortunately, multiple romantic relationships — whether married or dating — and the termination of those relationships have become part of our cultural evolution. Since we have not yet found a cure for this epidemic, we must create a way to not only survive, but thrive in this reality.
In our world, where we pride ourselves on innovative disposability and always trading up for the latest model, have we come to think of people and what they have brought to our lives as discardable as well? Has our reality has been expanded to include acceptance that relationships may not be built to last?
The question then, is: what meaning can we ﬁnd in relationships that did not last? We must ﬁnd a different way to look at those people who we previously loved. Sprayed with a mist of obsolescence, our loved ones appear to have diminished value. Because of the impermanence of relationships, many ﬁnd it unwise to allow themselves to be really vulnerable with others. When we are guarding our vulnerability, it becomes more difﬁcult to attach, but it is vulnerability that promotes attachment.
Ultimately, there may be a part of ourselves that we hold back in a relationship. Without the mortar of intrinsic worth, many of today’s relationships seem to be built out of Lego blocks that may be snapped together or pulled apart at will. Believing that our mate’s value lies only in his or her present functionality to us, we measure people’s worth only in terms of current value. How, then, do we treasure our time on earth if relationships are only fragmented and episodic, and have not been woven into the big picture of our lives? In a world of replaceability, we have begun stripping away a whole layer of human-relationship value that gives our life meaning and spiritual connectedness.
The platinum emotion of love can turn into tomorrow’s waste material. We are all in peril of being looked at with the glint of expendability in our beloved’s eye. With the increasing number of multiple broken relationships, we have all accumulated a landfill of human memories that can be either relegated to waste or productively recycled. The only way to redeem this landﬁ ll is to upgrade the value of its contents from toxic to timeless.
No matter whose idea it was to breakup it is a painful process. The search then is not only for how to live and weather the turmoil, but how to make sense of it. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “What really makes one indignant about suffering isn’t the thing itself, but the senselessness of it.”
As with many life experiences we ask ourselves, what purpose does this serve? As long as we see the past relationship as senseless, it is eviscerating. If we see the relationship only in terms of its ending, we can loose all of the lessons and benefits that it contained. The relationship was the whole pie, the ending is only the crust. Learning from love and the pain of the disintegration of that love is a valuable use of our time alive.
Our view of our past loves should include the knowledge that one of the purposes of relationships is learning. When that experience changes and we move to the next phase of our lives we can choose to look upon that as a living rebirth rather than the death of something. If we focus only on the negative, and have used that strategy as a way to detach so many experiences can be missed — the main ones being the benefits and life-enhancing experiences from our past loves. When we put the good memories in cold storage we may also miss the good qualities that we want to look for in the next relationship.
As a society, we have embraced all things green. We now abhor waste. We recycle everything from cell phones to the cardboard core inside a roll of paper towels — and we think twice before we throw something away. Are past relationships the one area of life exempted from the concept of recycling?
Are we so obsessed with hiding evidence of this so-called failure that we have no choice but to throw out the good with the bad? Must we ready to exclude a former love from any further purpose? Recycling is a philosophy — that in everything there is further purpose and possibility.
Past relationship creates an expansive ﬁeld of memories, effervescently rich with the potential to fertilize our new life. Keeping alive good recollections ensures that our arteries will carry those memories to our heart, so that our heart will not be deprived of nourishment from our past. We know that love can die when the present. Our choice is to tell ourselves that our relationship was always depleted, or that there were, at least for a time, the creation of valuable nutrients we can still use.
Memory is not only part of the past, it is alive in us now. If its interpretation is negative, it has the potential for self-laceration. You cannot annihilate these memories without also killing off meaningful parts of yourself. You must do something with these memories, as they remain in your bloodstream. When you accept that you have deposited parts of yourself in his or her soul, you can comfortably retrieve all the richness of your experiences, perhaps some pain but joy as well. The memories will have to be stored somewhere; the trick is to not store them in oblivion. Only in the gates of prison must the door behind you be sealed in order to move ahead.
Five suggestions for reframing your love ghosts on Valentines Day.
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by Gemma B. Allen
If you haven’t yet read Judge Michele Lowrance’s book, The Good Karma Divorce, run — don’t walk — to your nearest bookstore or your computer and buy it.
Judge Lowrance’s sage advice, based on 15 years as a Cook County divorce court judge, provides tools that will help ease the pain for anyone contemplating or going through a divorce.
As a family attorney who has always admired her approach in the courtroom, I can tell you that she embodies the characteristics of a truly effective divorce judge. With her book, The Good Karma Divorce, she has made her experience and knowledge accessible to all. Not only the children of divorce but the entire fabric of our society can benefit from the hope and healing it offers.]]>
This title sounds like an oxymoron. How can one link “good karma” and “divorce?” Judge Michele Lowrance acknowledges that our present day life is mired in a “combative culture of divorce.” And yet she outlines in great detail how two combatants can come to workable solutions. Lowrance certainly has the background knowledge and experience to offer advice. She has been a judge in domestic relations court in Chicago since 1995. For two decades prior to that, she was a divorce attorney. And she is the veteran of two divorces of her own.
Lowrance lists the emotions people experience when going through a divorce. She analyzes their fear and anger and points out what may be behind those emotions. She suggests that the reader make lists as well. Writing can have a cathartic effect. She also gives extensive examples of how acting out of anger can be detrimental to one’s self and to the children. For example, what is gained by being stuck in the same cycle of anger 10 years after the divorce? Lowrance’s compassionate tone keeps the reader from feeling they are being talked down to or taken to task. She also gives specific examples of how life can be made easier during the horrendous procedure of a divorce, thus paving the way for a smoother life post-divorce.
One exercise that may seem impossible to many litigants is listing the benefits that were reaped from the relationship. Difficult as it may be, this recognition that it was not 100% bad is essential to the negotiating process and to one’s future life, even if there are no children to deal with.
Another point that may appear even more difficult to achieve is forgiveness. Lowrance calls forgiveness a “weapon of mass construction.” She explains how “forgiveness benefits the forgiver.” Her explanations and examples are the best I’ve ever read. You don’t need to be in the midst of a divorce to use the guidance in this section. Considering the 50% divorce rate in this country, this book should be required reading for those contemplating divorce. —Catherine Ferguson, Psychic for Pets and People, www.cfergusonconsult.com, Jersey City, N.J.]]>