Finding your way through the great unknown

Whether you’re a newly qualified collaborative lawyer embarking on your first case or a seasoned practitioner about to begin a new case, you may feel as though you are entering ‘the great unknown’. 
The truth is, whatever your level of experience, every collaborative case is an unknown. You are putting yourself on the line in front of clients, and you don’t know how things are going to work out. So before you take that leap, here's Nicki Mitchell from Lupton Fawcett LLP, with advice on navigating the great unknown to get Collaborative Family Law Week 2018 off to a great start.
The first collaborative case I ever ran was with a solicitor whose first collaborative case it was, too. So between us, there were a lot of unknowns! In practice, that worked very well because it meant that we quickly forged a working relationship that put one of the essentials of a successful collaborative case – teamwork – firmly in place from the start. When both lawyers are working together with your clients towards a common goal, it means that you keep coming back to that goal and using it as the focus for discussions and decisions. 
The collaborative process is so very different to traditional divorce proceedings that when you first start out. There’s a lot that you don’t know. Here are three key things I’ve learned along the way:
This isn’t a linear process
Collaborative cases don’t move in straight lines. Because you’re not bound by the court process, there are no hard and fast rules about how it’s done or what you talk about in round table meetings. This can be disconcerting at first, but it also means that discussions and decisions can be much wider ranging, and completely tailored to what’s important to your clients. For me, this makes it a much freer process, and gives you the flexibility to help clients reach the decisions that are right for them.    

Do your homework
It might sound obvious, but before you sit round a table with your client, another lawyer and their client, make sure everyone is prepared. You know your client, and it’s important that you prepare them for the process. The same goes for their ex. I would also recommend that you have a conversation with the other solicitor involved, and discuss possible flash points or topics you think might be particularly difficult for your clients. Working together as a team to help your clients through these potential flash points, and what can often be very difficult conversations, will help you help them reach the outcomes they are aiming for.
Be prepared
I don’t mean the practicalities of preparing for a case here. I’m talking about a mindset shift. For a collaborative case to succeed, you will need to be prepared to listen. Really listen. You will also need to be prepared to sit back and observe; to know when your clients need space to open up and talk about the things that are most important to them. And you will need to be prepared to jump in if discussions are becoming unproductive or moving away from the terms of the process you have all signed up to.  
There’s no doubt about it, collaborative cases are very different to the traditional court process. Rather than seeing that unknown as something daunting, try seeing it as something liberating. Embrace the unknown, and I have no doubt you will succeed. 
Nicki Mitchell is a partner in the family team at Lupton Fawcett LLP in York.
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