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Clients who engage with lawyers practicing collaborative law make determinations outside the courtroom and without a judge, determinations that would generally be made by a judge in a courtroom.
Brigitte Bell, whose collaborative law firm is located in downtown Evanston, said, “We help people find their own solutions, but it’s very hard work for everyone involved. If something doesn’t work in court, you can blame the judge.” But, Ms. Bell explained, while with collaborative law clients have the benefit of making their own decisions, they cannot blame a judge if they do not like the outcome.
Ms. Bell called it “mediation on steroids” and explained that it is very hard work, in part because there is a lot of behind-the-scenes effort that has to take place in order to empower people to make their own decisions. The difference between collaborative law and mediation or lawyer-assisted mediation, which Ms. Bell also practices, is that it is more structured. Collaborative law also goes further into looking at contingencies, and, Ms. Bell said, courts are the opposite end of the spectrum, “focused on right now, looking at today – how to divide everything up, so that it’s a done deal with the cleanest break possible.”
Ms. Bell also said a lot of power is placed in the hands of an individual judge who has her or his own views and precedents – and no one is certain which judge will handle the case.
“With mediation, you don’t worry about the judge,” she said. A judge might determine that a jointly owned house, for example, should be sold, regardless of nuanced situations or the desires of those involved, but with collaborative law, needs and interests can be more carefully considered.
She said that one of the hardest parts of collaborative law is helping lawyers learn the power of silence. “Our job is to help clients do most of the talking, which means that the lawyers need a lot of training to learn how to shut up” said Ms. Bell.
There are other professionals involved in the process, doing the “behind-the-scenes” work, including “financial neutrals” who thoroughly review all financial information and consider contingencies; and coaches, who provide emotional support.
There is also always a carefully structured agenda to guide each of the conversations that are part of the process.
Ms. Bell said that some of the people who turn to collaborative law are, for example, those whose parents had a difficult divorce, who do not wish to replicate the experience. She said that her practice gets a lot of referrals from therapists. “Not everyone who gets divorced is vitally angry at each other. There are lots of people that come to the decision that they don’t want to be together, but they don’t want to be hurtful to each other. They want to be kind to each other.”
She said that the legal system often drives people apart in ways that are not always necessary, and that the cost of a trial is excessive and that it can take years.
“The collaborative process is purely practical, and we are able to think more about people’s needs and interests,” said Ms. Bell.
Asked how she ended up in this field, Ms. Bell said, “I like to argue and was in the debate club. But people who do this best are creative and willing to step outside the box. I like creative approaches and have always been a rabble-rouser, pushing the envelope – and I like people.”
Ms. Bell and her husband went to law school in Hyde Park and said that “when you leave Hyde Park you go to one of two places – Oak Park or Evanston. We chose Evanston.”
She had suggested that her husband go to law school and realized that she wanted to be a lawyer as well. Her first job out of law school was at Jenner and Block, working on an antitrust case “shoveling documents around instead of helping people like I wanted to.”
A sister who worked as a mediator got Ms. Bell engaged in mediation training. She then went to work for a firm that did family law which at the time was one of the only areas of legal practice that used mediation. One of the early pioneers in the field, she said that people sometimes joke and call her the “grandmother of mediation.”
Slowly, she forged a practice that focused more on mediation than litigation, and in 2001 she went with a group of colleagues to a workshop in Milwaukee about collaborative law, at the time a new field. She said that when they came back, they agreed that they had to bring it to Illinois and formed the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois. While they were able to begin practicing and develop the area of work, it only became recognized through state of Illinois legislation in 2017 as the Collaborative Process Act. “When we first brought it to Illinois, everybody laughed at us and said it’s never going to work, it’s illegal, you can’t do it, blah, blah, blah,” she said. “There probably isn’t a firm, there isn’t a lawyer left that doesn’t have the word collaborative somewhere on their website so that they can be found.”
Talking about how far it has come along, Ms. Bell said, “Our job is to help people make their own decisions. When I first started doing this people would say, ‘we can’t even agree on lunch, how are we going to agree to do this?’ Part of the magic is helping people realize what they do know and having the conversations in a constructive way.”
Ms. Bell said that the real work is about finding the best way to empower people to make their own decisions. She said that the clients themselves don’t always believe that they’ll be able to make decisions, but that with collaborative law they often discover that they know more than they thought.