What I’ve learned from a decade in collaborative law

Stephen Root, family partner at Berwins Solicitors reflects on ten years as a collaborative family lawyer, and the benefits of the collaborative process for separating couples.

Periods of time that end with a ‘0’ are often a time for reflection. It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago that I qualified as a collaborative lawyer. During an intensive three-day training course in Newcastle I was introduced to the delights of the grief cycle, active listening and lots and lots of role-play. One bonus is that I’ve never worried about role-plays ever since! 
I learnt a lot about the psychology of four-way meetings and forged relationships with those who were training alongside me that have lasted to this day. Indeed, I met my future colleague and current managing director Sarah Smith on the same training course. Little did we know at the time that one day we would be working closely together.
We all left the training course filled up with enthusiasm for a bright new way forward. But has it lived up to the hype?
Capturing public imagination
I have been lucky. I’ve had far more collaborative cases than many lawyers I speak to. I work in Harrogate, which has a good number of collaborative lawyers and a close-knit family law community. This helps get cases as most of us promote the process and are keen to do it. I’ve also had a number of cases with other collaborative lawyers out-of-town, which shows that geography is no barrier. 
I’m aware, however, that in many other towns - and particularly in big cities - collaborative law has been slower to take off. Certainly it seems on a national basis that it is yet to catch the public imagination as mediation has in recent years. It is definitely a slow burner, but for me – and others in this area - the cases do keep on coming.
The benefits of collaborative law for separating couples
The process has many advantages for clients: 
  • They keep control of discussions at all times
  • It gives them complete privacy, unlike the courts where outcomes can be reported. 
  • They control the pace of the negotiations, and we provide a safe space for them to explore settlements and express feelings. 
  • Collaborative law allows solutions to be reached that are out of the box and simply could not be ordered by a court. 
  • Very, very few cases fail: in 10 years I’ve only had two cases that didn’t work out, and that seems to be typical among others I speak to.
Genuine connections mean better outcomes
At a personal level, I love the collaborative process more than ever. It allows me to make real connections with my client, but not just with my client. I get the opportunity to connect with the other person involved as well. I’m working with like-minded solicitors – and it is very much working with, not against. I’m able to focus on outcomes, and not have to think tactically in the light of the court process. I know that everybody sitting round the table is aiming to find a solution and a way forward. 
What’s more, I see the separating couple together and this gives a real insight into the way that their relationship worked and what has gone wrong. This is often the key to implementing a settlement, and is something that can never happen in court.
Collaborative law is not for everyone, but it can be used in many more cases than people realise. It isn’t an easy option, and some cases can be very challenging. But on virtually every occasion it will result in a better outcome than litigation. It maintains relationships within the family, vitally important where children are concerned. Rather than being destructive, it allows separating couples to be constructive and future focused.
So, was the training worth doing? My answer is an emphatic yes. Bring on the next 10 years…
Stephen Root is the family partner at Berwins Solicitors in Harrogate. 
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