What a gift!
The perspective of a Law Student as they participate in their first Collaborative Case. The Barry University Collaborative Family Law Clinic provides an incredible opportunity for families in Central Florida needing help with divorce or paternity issues. Just imagine the possibilities!
Reflection of a Law Student.
Looking back over the semester, not only have I learned more about the collaborative process through our class sessions and the interactions with the clients—but, also about my fellow classmates. I looked forward to our Friday gatherings because it was a chance to informally learn about the collaborative practice as well as, a little bit about each other. Every week, through open discussions at the start of class, the simple task of sharing how our week was going was a nice ice-breaker to connect with other students that we may have seen around campus but never spoke to. I felt this bonding was really important because teamwork is easier when everyone actually knows, respects, and understands one another.
The Vibe of Fellowship.
This vibe of fellowship carried over from the classroom to the full team meetings. Maintaining this collaborative relationship with one another in the presence of the clients is crucial for setting the tone of the meetings. The clients often look to the team for support and feed off of our responses. The Mental Health Neutral and the mentor attorneys would keep their speaking tone low, make eye contact, and offer solutions across the table. The student attorneys would aid the meetings by being attentive and respectful of the clients’ feelings and thoughts being expressed. I learned right away that there is a monumental difference in working collaboratively versus working cooperatively. When working collaboratively, the group functions as a true team with the end goal being what’s best for the clients jointly so that they may be able to resolve future issues amongst themselves. This is achievable because the collaborative sessions permit the clients to engage in deeper levels of communications during their efforts of reaching a resolution. Whereas, the cooperative method still works more like the adversarial approach. This is because even though the attorneys are working together to share information, the clients are not engaging with one another and therefore, the outcome is still centered around individual goals.
Previous Adversarial Perspective.
Prior to law school I worked in family law for five years and found the work to be gratifying. However, the collaborative clinic was eye-opening as to how skewed the adversarial, court-based approach really is for the family-unit as a whole. And the more I thought about it, I realized that several of our clients were repeats seeking modifications. This is really disheartening because those clients learned that anytime they have a problem, the court has the solution—which couldn’t be any further from the truth. If these couples would have been offered or taken the collaborative path for their initial dissolution, then they would have learned that they were fully capable of resolving their issues by communicating with one another—as opposed to being quick to call their former attorneys. Thankfully, new legislation has been passed that mandates collaborative law as a viable option for family law matters. Now attorneys are obligated, at the minimum, to offer the collaborative process to their clients as a potential pathway to resolution.
How We Communicate Matters.
My time working at the collaborative clinic helped me to see how much more rewarding family law cases can be when there is an open channel of communication between the clients, attorneys, and neutral professionals. Verbal communication blanketed the table through the clients’ expressions of goals, interests, and feelings. In response, the professional team was actively listening and let the clients know that they understood what was being said. This technique seemed to place the clients at ease and allow them to be open to discussion in a room full of unfamiliar faces. Non-verbal communication was also visible through the clients’ body language. The Wife would at times express her unease by looking down and doodling; while the Husband would become silent and allow his Wife to dominant certain discussions. All of these forms of communication are very important to the collaborative process because they allow the team to pick-up certain topics that may need additional attention before the full team, or that may require individual sessions with the mental health professional. In the traditional, adversarial approach the opposing attorney would often overlook these communication signals during the effort to zealously represent his/her client.
The Magic of Teamwork.
Not only is the communication during the team meetings important in moving the process toward a successful resolution, but also behind the scenes the team is constantly in touch. The professionals and students are always working jointly and efficiently with one another to achieve homework tasks consisting of items such as, research and document preparation. This teamwork saves the clients both, money and time, by not having to consult with their own counsel and independent experts on financial and mental health issues. The overall collaborative process is a smart, cohesive, and effective practice for resolving family law matters. I am so happy to have been a part of the magic at the Barry Collaborative Family Law Clinic. Thank you for the awakening.