Building a framework of trust

For clients, the collaborative process is often a leap of faith. Sitting around a table with their ex spouse or partner, with lawyers, to agree the details of their separation is a step into the unknown. As a collaborative lawyer you may have been there before, but the chances are your clients haven’t. 
 
Having faith in the process, and trust in you as their lawyers to guide them through it, is key to reaching an outcome that is right for a separating couple and their family. But how do you build that trust? Nicki Mitchell from Jones Myers shares her thoughts.
 
It's all in the preparation
 
I’m sure we’ve all heard the well-worn saying ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. But it rings true. For me, the key to a successful collaborative case is in the preparation. There is a lot lawyers can do before they step into the room for the first meeting that will pave the way for a constructive negotiation and positive outcome.
 
Both lawyers need to invest time upfront to understand each other and their respective clients. Sharing information and insights into your approach and your clients’ desires, drivers and frame of mind will give you both a much better understanding of what’s important to them and allow you to identify potential ‘deal breakers’ or things that could help - or hinder - the process.
 
For lawyers who have only ever experienced the traditional divorce process, this openness can feel counterintuitive. But the collaborative approach isn’t just about your clients collaborating with each other. It applies just as much to you, the lawyers.
 
Settling in
 

In my experience it really helps to spend time right at the beginning of the first meeting to  help clients ‘settle in’ to a different way of working. This will help them build trust in the process, in the lawyers and in each other. Spending time talking about how the collaborative approach works and going through the agreement is a very worthwhile exercise. It invariably leads to questions and opens up conversations that set the scene for discussions going forward. Without that preparation to lay the groundwork, it’s easy to view the process as “two vs two”.
 
Helping clients understand that there’s nothing going on behind the scenes and that everything is discussed out in the open can take some getting used to. There are no letters going back and forth, and I find that this really helps build trust. It’s all open dialogue, everything is happening in front of you, and making sure your clients feel comfortable with the process has a big impact on its likely success.
 
The right dynamics
 
There are several dynamics in play during the collaborative process. The dynamic between the lawyers is vital and, in my view, working with someone you can have a frank discussion with about what you think your client needs and understanding what their client needs means you can avoid pushing the wrong buttons and instead create a supportive environment.
 
Earning your client’s trust and the trust of the other lawyer is one thing. Earning the trust of the client’s ex is another, particularly when, in the traditional divorce process, the role of your ex’s lawyer is widely seen as being to ‘take you to the cleaners’.

If the lawyers are able to demonstrate that they are working together to get the best possible deal for both clients and their children, the dynamic becomes very different from conventional round table meetings. Instead of feeling mistrustful and defensive, clients can gain the confidence actively to participate in the meetings, to ask questions which enable them fully to understand how the things that matter most to them can be worked out, and to make decisions which they understand. Although there is never a perfect outcome, get the dynamics right, and you can come up with agreements that are realistic and workable and reduce the negative emotional fallout for all concerned.

Nicki Mitchell is a trained collaborative lawyer and heads the Jones Myers team in York. Get in touch with Nicki to find out more about the collaborative process.
 
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