Collaborative Divorce: A Model for Effective Problem-Solving and Prevention

divorceA Review of Forrest S. Mosten, Collaborative Divorce Handbook*
Thomas D. Barton**


Collaborate Divorce Handbook, by Forrest S. Mosten, delivers what its title suggests–a complete, point-by-point practical guide for lawyers wishing to learn about collaborative divorce techniques.  But this book also offers much more, and to a far broader readership.  It can inspire all lawyers to adopt a stronger, more effective, and more personal approach to clients.  It can inform related professionals–mental health specialists, coaches, and financial advisors–about the process of collaborative divorce and how they may best join in it.  Finally, the warmth and depth of human understanding in this book can prompt reflection on personal values, professional satisfaction, and the possibility of peacemaking.

The Handbook is the latest chapter in Mosten’s life-long quest to make legal services and counseling more accessible and helpful to the average person.  He pioneered the establishment of legal clinics and unbundling of legal services and has been a leading proponent of Preventive Law, problem solving, and mediation.  He has encountered a broad range of human disagreements and observed their attempted resolution using a variety of alternative techniques.  His reflections on the values and principles underpinning Collaborative Law are thereby uniquely mature, and can be applied throughout legal practice. His eloquent and comprehensive approach offers significant benefits for clients and lawyers alike.  Quoting Pauline Tesler, Mosten speaks of changing the understanding of a lawyer’s role, the relationship with one’s client, the ways of approaching other lawyers and parties, and the structure and commitment to the negotiation process.3

Mosten organizes the Handbook as one would approach the counseling of a client: with respect for the reader’s needs, choices, and intelligence.  Mosten certainly instructs, but he also wants us to succeed. Always open-minded and objective, he compares and contrasts a variety of alternative models to collaborative divorce.  He realistically offers vital advice for how to talk with one’s client as well as one’s counterpart attorney about the collaborative approach when one or both may be resistant to its structure or underlying assumptions.  The book supplies dozens of checklists and tips, together with a supplemental website of testimonials, suggestions, and ways to continue in an organized dialogue with other experienced collaborative practitioners.

Understanding Collaborative Law and Building a Collaborative Practice

In exploring Collaborative Law,4 Mosten addresses three basic questions: (1) what is collaborative law; (2) how is it done; and (3) how can the reader get started in a collaborative practice?

The “what” is a philosophy and basic method that unite varying models of Collaborative Divorce.  The philosophy is that collaboration and settlement should be the “last step along the dispute resolution highway,”5 not a mere way-station before the expected destination in court.  If the divorcing parties feel they must resort to court, the collaborative lawyers have essentially failed.  Although subject to variation, the basic method of Collaborative Divorce is a breath-taking innovation.  Attorneys representing both of the divorcing parties agree that they will withdraw from further representation if a settlement is not reached.6 In other words, the attorneys may not represent a collaborative client in court.  Their work is basically at an end.  Mosten quotes Ousky and Webb: “Collaborative attorneys actually sign a contract that commits them–along with you and your spouse–to reaching a settlement.  The contract, called a Participation Agreement, requires the attorneys to withdraw from your case if they can’t resolve all of your issues out of court.”7

The “how” is equal in importance to the “what,” says Mosten.  This is part of the collaborative attitude.8 The what and how begin to merge in this book, a refreshing approach that values the means for achieving ends, as well as the ends themselves.  Concern for the method by which a settlement is obtained pays rich dividends in the future relationships of the parties and their children.  Mosten writes:

The how is the way the parties speak with each other when discussing concerns that each has with the other.  Traditional lawyers often focus on the terms of parenting and financial agreements and try to avoid discussing the how or assume that such toxic and damaging spousal interaction will never change.  Collaborative lawyers believe that by helping parties with the process, lasting settlements occur more frequently and with much reduced transaction costs.9

The collaborative lawyer uses transparency and candor10 to expand both the framing of the problem and the cooperative spirit by which it can be addressed:

The way a problem is defined often dictates its outcome.  Adversarial lawyers . . . may limit the problem and its solution to mirror how a judge would decide the matter if litigated . . . . Collaborative lawyers believe that the legal outcome is just one of the many ways to define the problem.  By opening up new creative perspectives of how a solution may be addressed, settlements can be reached by widening the scope of the problem to include the relationships of all members of the family, how the parties will emotionally handle any solution, and how the result will affect finances now and in the future.11

Once the aims of successful divorce representation are opened up, so also is the method that can and should be used.  This is introduced under the topic of “Values and Principles of Collaborative Law.”  Mosten introduces, and later elaborates, on each of these tenets:

  • Respect and dignity for the other party and other professionals
  • Direct and open communication with the other party and professionals;
  • Voluntary and full disclosure of relevant information and documents necessary to make agreements;
  • Commitment to the healing of the family; [and]
  • Use of interest-based negotiation to try to meet the needs of both parties.12

Lawyers should not take for granted that these attitudes generally prevail in divorce representation or in other areas of practice.  The adversarial system is primarily designed for achieving truth, not for facilitating strong future relationships.  But the adversarial system is the foundation of Anglo-American court procedures, as well as of traditional thinking about lawyers’ professional responsibility.  Indeed, one key element in Collaborative Law practice has raised some legal ethical concerns.  It is the commitment made by collaborative lawyers to refrain from representing clients in court, should settlement negotiations stall or fail.  As Mosten explains , the participation agreement can be a private agreement among parties and professionals or a court order.  This agreement is signed in addition to separate engagement agreements between each client and each professional.  It is important for all parties to understand the agreement terms.  If either party terminates the collaborative process or participates in adversary proceedings in violation of this agreement, the attorneys and all other collaborative professionals should not continue representing the parties, and new attorneys and professionals should be hired.13

In requiring the lawyers to withdraw from further representation in the event that the issues cannot be resolved out of court, some feel that the pressure on collaborative lawyers to settle is simply too strong.  They feel the client’s interest could be compromised by the lawyer’s felt need to continue the representation.  Some others are uncomfortable with the possibility of one lawyer forcing a withdrawal of another attorney’s representation.14 Mosten is straight-forward in his defense that lawyers using this “disqualification” clause remain within the traditional responsibilities to the client:

If you serve as a lawyer for a client who decides to use collaborative divorce, your client is entitled to the same professional obligations of competence and loyalty to which you would [be] obligated in any other lawyer arrangement.  In concrete terms, this means that you have a duty to pursue the client’s objectives, protect your client from financial harm and legal exposure, inform your client of legal rights, produce competent work, keep all attorney-client communications confidential, avoid conflicts of interest, and ensure that your fees are fair and that clients understand them.  Although your approach may differ from the traditional model, you are still a lawyer.15

For additional help, Mosten also supplies a section entitled “Questions and Answers About Ethical and Competent Service,” which addresses issues arising for lawyers living in states both with and without specific collaborative enabling statutes.16

Furthermore, says Mosten, responsible practice requires that an attorney walk a new client step-by-step through the process of obtaining an informed consent of a client, explaining each of the alternative models of representation that are available.  This should be done even if the lawyer is not willing to represent the client under one or more of those alternatives.17 Mosten supplies a well-organized template to direct this discussion, entitled “A Guide for Discussion with Clients on Collaborative Practice.”18 Each of the various aspects of alternatives of collaborative representation is shown in a column, parallel to which are additional columns describing first the benefits, and then the risks, of those choices.19

Included in one row of the template, for example, is an entry marked “Trained Collaborative Professionals.”  That appears because the collaborative model does not assume mere collaboration among lawyers and clients.  Included also in the idea of Collaborative Divorce is participation by one or more other professionals: psychologists, child specialists, divorce coaches, mediators, and financial planners.  The family is seen as a system comprised of a variety of people and needs, present and future, not all of which are necessarily best addressed by lawyers.

The particular roles and responsibilities of each of these specialists are valuably analyzed.20 In considering how those other professionals may be used, however, Mosten again does not urge one particular model.  Instead, he describes alternative structures, compares their advantages and shortcomings, and stresses choice, practicality, and flexibility.  This part of the Handbook is especially useful for lawyers who may be inexperienced in how to work with other professionals.  Mediators, coaches, psychologists and financial analysts involved in divorce work would also benefit greatly from the dozens of practical tips as well as broad understanding of collaborative structure that Mosten provides.

Obviously, adding these other professionals increases the cost of forging a divorce settlement, a concern for both the lawyers and the parties who must ultimately bear those costs.  On the positive side, this team approach still is likely to be less expensive than resort to litigation.21 Furthermore, the resulting agreement and more positive relationships may prevent many future problems with unknown but potentially substantial costs.  On the other hand, “there appears to be no data showing [Collaborative Divorce] is less expensive than traditional lawyer-negotiated settlements . . . and no data comparing the cost of collaborative divorce to mediation, even with consulting attorneys.”22 That raises at least two issues.  First, how should one discuss these costs with a client so that informed consent is reached?  And second, what steps may be taken to reduce the costs of using collaboration, especially with a full interdisciplinary team?

On the first issue, Mosten’s informed consent template sets out the benefits and risks to the client.  On the benefits side,

You and your spouse may benefit from using a team of collaborative professionals with different skills.  Collaborative professionals usually have had special training to help promote constructive settlements.  By investing the time and money for professional training, collaborative professionals demonstrate a commitment to constructive negotiation.23

The risk, however, is that “[y]ou or your spouse may feel some pressure to use more professionals than you want or feel that you can afford.”24

As possible mitigation of some of those costs as well as to broaden the choice and effectiveness of the collaborative process, Mosten includes analysis for which he is perhaps uniquely qualified.  He draws upon his years of varied experience in the chapter entitled “How Collaborative Divorce Works with Mediation and Unbundled Legal Services.”25 Here, Mosten describes how “mediation can be a partner with collaborative divorce”26 and how unbundling is an inherent, but flexible part of collaborative lawyering.

Mediation, of course, is a well-known process in which lawyers may act in the role of either the neutral mediator or as the representative of a party engaged in mediation.  Mosten systematically sets out a broad variety of ways in which mediation could be used to augment the collaborative approach, or as an alternative to it.  In each variation, Mosten describes the differing roles that could usefully be played by the lawyer.

Although expensive, “having collaborative representatives plus a mediator may be the best of all worlds . . . . ”27 “Many clients want to use the neutrality of mediation but also want the advice and protection of an attorney who would both be mediation friendly and supportive of it and affordable.”28 Mediation could, for example, be a useful adjunct to collaborative divorce at the beginning of the process.  Mosten describes this possibility from the client’s perspective:

If you arrange for a mediator to join the collaborative process from (or near) the beginning, you may design a process that helps your clients have it all ways.  Your client gets your support, advice, and feeling of your protection, and the other party gets similarly taken care of by the other collaborative lawyer or team.  At the same time, the mediator can set a neutral and safe atmosphere while playing a more jarring role as agent of reality, testing the parties’ positions and trying to gain movement toward consensus and a result that both parties can live with.29

Alternatively, mediation can be useful if problems develop, or to resolve conflicts among the various professionals.30 Mosten explains the common-sense nature of this:  Often you and your collaborative partner can reach agreement without a mediator.  However, if trouble develops, you need to stress the mind-set: “It is not a choice between the collaborative process and litigation.  It is a choice between the current structure of the collaborative process that is not resulting in an agreement and the challenge of finding a workable new structure that will get the job done .”31 Therefore, rather than terminate the collaborative process, disband the collaborative professional team, and require the parties to obtain litigation counsel to ready themselves for a courthouse battle, you can build in mediation as the fail-safe logical next step if either or both parties are ready to terminate the collaborative process.32

Unbundling is a less familiar technique, but it can help trim the costs for a client who wants a collaborative divorce process:

In unbundling . . . the client is in charge of selecting one or several discrete lawyering tasks contained with the full-service package.  The client specifically provides for which services the attorney will provide, how extensive the services will be, and how to determine the communication and decision-making control between the client and the attorney.33

As Mosten describes it, attorneys outside of the collaborative context can separate out various services like advice, research, factual collection and investigation, drafting, negotiation, and court appearances.34 Those aspects that a client feels capable of undertaking alone, or with the lawyer as a background coach, can be removed from the formal scope of representation (and billing).

Interestingly, relatively little experimentation with unbundling has occurred as of yet within the collaborative divorce process.35 As Mosten puts it, to date “the growth of collaborative divorce has been among clients who otherwise can afford lawyers, and very few collaborative divorce professionals have focused on ways to penetrate the underserved and otherwise unrepresented market.”36


Mosten delivers a wealth of information and advice, most of which cannot be discussed in this short review.  Certainly Collaborative Divorce is growing quickly, and Mosten’s Handbook is essential reading for any family specialist, regardless of legal training.  Beyond that, any lawyer interested in the emerging paradigm shift in legal thinking and method that several writers have identified can get a rich sense of its attributes through Mosten’s work.  Finally, those who believe in the power of empathy, reason, and respectful communication–values that historically gave rise to the Rule of Law–can be encouraged from this book.  Even in one of life’s most difficult, intimate, and emotional settings–the dissolution of a family–Mosten shows that lawyers can play an important role in promoting peaceful and productive transitions.

* Forrest S. Mosten, Collaborative Divorce Handbook: Helping Families Without Going to Court (Jossey-Bass, 2009) [hereinafter Handbook].

** Louis and Herminone Brown Professor of Law, California Western School of Law.

3 Handbook, supra note 1, at 6, 7.

4 “Collaborative Law” is typically used as a synonym phrase for “Collaborative Divorce” because to date the model of collaborating lawyers representing different parties has been employed almost exclusively in divorce settings.  Theoretically, however, the attitudes and skills underpinning collaborative divorce could begin to be employed toward resolving legal issues beyond divorce or family law.

5 Handbook, supra note 1, at 8.

6 Id. at 22, 29.

7 Id. at 29, quoting Ronald D. Ousky & Stuart Webb, The Collaborative way to Divorce 6 (2006).

8 Id. at 14.

9 Id.

10 Id. at 15.

11 Id. at 14.

12 Id. at 21.

13 Id. at 29.

14 For a thorough and insightful analysis of the ethical implications of various permutations of disqualification clauses in Collaborative Agreements, see Scott R. Peppet, The Ethics of Collaborative Law, 2008 J. Disp. Resol. 131 (2008).

15 Handbook., supra note 1, at 45, 46.

16 Id. at 140-145.

17 Id. at 129, 130.

18 Id. at 146-150.

19 Id.

20 Id. at 52-58.

21 Id. at 64.

22 Id.

23 Id. at 147.

24 Id.

25 Id. at 59-77.

26 Id. at 64.

27 Id. at 68.

28 Id.

29 Id. at 74.

30 Id. at 75-76.

31 Id. at 75.

32 Id.

33 Id. at 59-60.

34 Id. at 61-62.

35 Id. at 64.

36 Id.

Originally published to HNLR Online on Dec. 28, 2009.

Two Legal Rivers Converge in Collaborative Law

By Michael Zeytoonian, Esq. & R. Paul Faxon, Esq.

Transactional law, centered on structuring voluntary and private business deals, and civil litigation, involving legal disputes between parties who need the public courts to impose a judgment, occupy different worlds in the practice of law.  On those rare occasions that these legal disciplines do intersect, it is neither by design nor is it typically welcomed with enthusiasm. However, one noteworthy exception exists – in the freeing and creative world of collaborative law.  Within the framework of resolving disputes collaboratively, the skill sets and insights of these two disciplines within the law not only are allowed to complement each other, they bring out the best in each other and their practitioners.  The result is a synergy in which the sum is greater than each of its parts, and the elusive win-win resolution of a dispute.

The two authors know this to be true not only in theory, but also because they experienced this outstanding result in a collaborative case.  The proof is found in the outcome of a breakup, and resulting successful re-structuring, of a closely-held corporation of four partners.  Paul Faxon, a commercial transactional attorney, represented three majority shareholder partners, and Michael Zeytoonian, a litigator, represented the minority shareholder partner.  The two collaborative lawyers discovered that each of their respective perspectives brought different insights into the collaborative process, feeding off each other and providing the necessary elements to complete the resolution of the dispute in a way that met the needs of all parties.

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Junctions Along the ADR Spectrum

As ADR practitioners get out and educate the public about the various alternative dispute resolution processes, we frequently hear some of the same questions asked. People want to know the differences between this approach and that one, between what I do and what other lawyers do, between facilitative and evaluative mediation styles.  In order to best help our clients, we need to be able to successfully and clearly answer their questions.

What’s the difference between arbitration and mediation?

What is the difference between mediation and collaborative law? What does a case evaluator do differently from a mediator?

Where does the word “ombuds” come from, and how is an ombuds different from a human resources person?

How is mediation used as part of the collaborative process different from mediation that takes place in litigation?

Is arbitration all that different from litigation?

If we as ADR practitioners educate the public about the tremendous untapped resources available to them within the ADR spectrum, and engage in ongoing discussion with our potential clients about the value of ADR and the differences between approaches, we will be more successful in educating end users and referral sources about our respective services.  And we will achieve greater buy-in and use of our ADR services by the public.

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Collaborative Law — A New Choice for Divorcing Families

When a family is divorcing, they can choose to go the typical route–litigation–or an increasingly common alternative–mediation.  In addition to those more traditional choices, couples now have the option of what’s been come to be known as the “collaborative process.”

In the collaborative law model (also known as Collaborative Practice), each client hires a collaboratively-trained attorney.  Clients and their attorneys sit down together for four-way meetings structured with the goals of fair dealing and transparent negotiating. The parties and their attorneys articulate the underlying goals and interests of the divorcing parties and strive to reach those goals in order to create a fair and reasonable separation agreement.

There are several keys, in my view, to a successful collaborative law situation. Together, all of these requirements comprise the total “collaborative commitment.”

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