Good marriages you’ve seen. How about a good divorce?

Some lawyers say there’s a way to a better matrimonial finale called "collaborative law." It was devised by Stu Webb, a Buddhist Minneapolis-based lawyer who wanted a different path.

The biggest difference? If the lawyers can’t get the unhappy couple to negotiate an agreement, the lawyers quit. New attorneys handle the court battle.

This is designed to create incentive for the clients to keep trying, for the lawyers to cooperate rather than be adversarial and for everyone to take a deep breath.

Lawyers who have practiced in a variety of courts know the most wrenching and unpleasant of practices can be family law. Losing freedom in criminal court and money in civil cases pales when the heart is torn asunder and people are their most wildly unhappy and obsessed. The divorce court process pretty much exacerbates every misery.

"It came out of desperation. The negativity can get to you. Every step of the litigation model is designed to create polarization," said Webb, whose page shows a serene lake where his advertising brethren feature a picture of themselves looking serious and trustworthy.

He’d seen enough pain handling divorces that he was ready to leave the law when he instead created the collaborative concept in 1990. It has gradually gained steam internationally.

Texas is one of three states to put collaboration in the family law code.

It happened in 2001 here and it’s being used more and more.

But it’s still no groundswell, even in Dallas where it is more common than in Houston.

Because she started getting phone calls asking if she did collaborative law divorces, Houston lawyer Annette Henry this year learned how and has handled several cases.

‘Holistic approach’

"It feels a lot different. It’s like a holistic approach to help people get through a phase of their lives as opposed to kind of destroying them," Henry said.

The couple and their lawyers, all four, sign a contract that they will cooperate, hide nothing and honestly work toward meeting both parties’ needs. The four of them decide who else might be needed, like a CPA or a mental health counselor. Hopefully, after several meetings and on their own schedule they will agree and file joint papers with the court.

In the end it can be cheaper, much more private and far more civil.

It can really save big bucks for people who have them.

Like Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy Disney, who filed for divorce in California this year using the collaborative process.

Norma Levine Trusch, a Houston lawyer who helped pioneer collaborative law in Texas, said not only do her clients sleep better, but she does too.

"Life is short. I don’t want to be part of the wrecking crew anymore," she said. "It’s a different paradigm. You go from being adversarial to educational and cooperative. Litigation is a brutal process … in collaboration they can walk away with a plan to be successful parents, that’s gold."

Trusch said they "don’t sit around and hold hands singing Kumbaya."

She said it’s hard work for two people who once loved each other to discuss how they can best meet the post-divorce interests of each spouse and their children.

Trusch said that though collaborative law generally costs clients less than trial, she’s probably making about the same salary.

She said without the pain of litigation, her clients actually pay their bills.

Broader effort fails

Not everyone is a fan. The Colorado Bar Association issued an advisory opinion in February saying collaborative law is unethical because of the conflict created when the attorney signs a contract with both a client and the spouse. Colorado still allows attorneys to practice collaborative law as long as the contract to withdraw is just with the client and not the spouse.

In Texas, the state legislature has considered bills in the last three sessions to formalize collaborative law in more types of civil cases, where it could be used by business partners or in employment situations, for instance. But these bills have always been defeated.

Trial lawyers opposed it this year, saying mediation offers people a better way to work out a divorce and noting couples can get stuck paying their collaborative lawyers and attorneys for a lawsuit.

Supporters of collaborative law suspect the trial lawyers are just worried that if the collaborative process was regularly used on other Texas civil cases, as it is to some small degree elsewhere, it would cut into their profits.

SOURCE: Houston Chronicle