Student Guest Post by Ben Zocco
This post is the first in a series of posts on this blog written by students studying Non-Adversarial Justice at the Faculty of Law at Monash University. Students were invited to write blog posts explaining various complex areas of law relating to dispute resolution to ordinary readers. The very best posts are published here.
The advent of collaborative practice as a means of resolving family law disputes has provided couples with a means of completing a divorce or separation in a conciliatory and cost effective manner. With more than 200 practitioners currently registered with the Law Institute of Victoria’s Collaborative Law Section, a significant number of lawyers have undergone training that allows them to practice collaboratively.
The Law Council of Australia’s Basic Training Requirements
In response to its increasing popularity of collaborative practice, the Law Council of Australia has published the Australian Collaborative Practice Guidelines for Lawyers. This document encompasses a series of “Basic Training” requirements in order to be recognised as being collaboratively trained. This set of overarching training requirements forms a best practice guide for ensuring practitioners engaging in collaborative law are appropriately prepared for acting in this unique practice area.
Image: Courtesy State Library of Queensland
The Basic Training requirements provide for the teaching of a range of skills that are unique to the practice of collaborative law. This is particularly so with the requirement that practitioners are provided with relevant training of the “collaborative model”.
What is Collaborative Practice?
Collaborative practice, as the name suggests, is a non-adversarial process used to resolve disputes. It requires the parties and their legal representatives to enter into a formal contract that puts the focus of the process settling a matter rather than resorting to litigation. Terms in the agreement generally refer to a commitment for each party to engage in the collaborative process in good faith and to share all available relevant information pertaining to the dispute with the other party. If the dispute is not resolved and parties seek to formally commence legal proceedings, the lawyers engaged in the collaborative process are contractually required to cease representing their clients. This requires the parties to engage new lawyers, generally at a significant cost, and serves as a major incentive to the parties to find common ground and work collaboratively to resolve their dispute.
Collaborative practice is conducted in the presence of each party and their legal adviser in what is described as a “four way meeting”. Several four way meetings take place over the course of a number of months, with each run according to agenda devised by the parties in consultation with their lawyers prior to the meeting. The conclusion of the four way meetings seeks to culminate in the drafting and execution of an agreement that resolves the dispute in a manner that is mutually acceptable to both parties.
The Unique Nature of Collaborative Practice
The collaborative model, as describe above, is an entirely unique approach to the resolution of disputes. While traditional mediation is also seen as an alternative to litigating matters, it differs from collaborative practice in many respects. The absence of a mediator in collaborative practice requires the legal representatives to facilitate the discussion rather than simply representing their client. Additionally, the capabilities necessary to operate collaboratively in the absence of a court-mandated framework for discovery and good faith negotiation is at odds with that of conventional alternative dispute resolution approaches. Accordingly, this skillset is unique to collaborative law practitioners.
The skills required of collaborative practitioners are also unique insofar as the model makes use of independent experts to facilitate the settlement of disputes. It is standard practice in a matter being resolved collaboratively to utilise the expertise of third party professionals, especially those who are trained as child specialists or financial advisors. These experts assist the parties and the lawyers in exploring interests (rather than positions) and potential options to satisfy the needs of the parties. Additionally, their experience assists the couple in being able to understand the impact of their separation on their children, as well as its effect on the financial position of each person once the dispute has finalised.
While the interaction of legal practitioners and independent experts is extremely common, the manner in which they work together in a collaborative setting compared with that of general legal practice is significantly different. In many jurisdictions, the relationship between independent expert is governed by a formal practice note, issued by the court. Lawyers typically engage independent experts by way of a formal retainer, setting out the advice necessary for the purposes of the matter. The expert will then write a formal report, setting out their findings. In many cases, an expert will be required to “hot tub” with an expert appointed by the opposing party in order to reach consensus conclusions and to narrow the issues in dispute. Additionally, experts retained in a litigation matter are subject to rigorous cross examination from other parties, adding an adversarial flavour to their contribution made for the purposes of resolving the matter.
In contrast, a collaborative approach requires each party to jointly appoint an expert, often by way of a shared recommendation by the practitioners representing them. The expert will work with each party in the room together and will rarely engage in separate discussions with parties individually. Rather than the lawyers approaching the assistance of an expert’s contribution as potentially suspect or misconstrued as may be the case in litigated disputes, they are able to respect and value their support in a truly collaborative fashion. Accordingly, the interdisciplinary approach to collaborative practice means a collaborative practitioner is required to have a unique skillset when involving experts in a matter being managed collaboratively.
Negotiation for All, Not Just the Collaborative
While there are many aspects of the “Basic Training” requirements that are unique to collaborative practitioners, it is clear that are not all exclusively within the domain of collaborative law.
A crucial example of this is the necessity that collaborative practitioners must be aware of and trained in negotiation theory; specifically, that of the differences between interest and positional-based bargaining.
A key tool in the arsenal of a collaborative practitioner is assisting the parties to consider the distinction between positions and interests. Unlike traditional positional bargaining, focusing on interests allows the parties to concentrate on the key issues that require resolution, rather than the parties becoming distracted on minor matters, falling into positional impasses or creating acrimony in the process. This prioritisation of interests, rather than positions, also assists the parties in being able to develop creative solutions that are mutually amenable, rather than being focused on finding a middle ground between two respective positions, neither of which may be the best holistic outcome.
But similar strategies are used in some forms of mediation generally, rather than solely within a collaborative setting. Facilitative mediation, for instance, also focuses on steering the parties toward concentrating on positions rather than interests. This occurs in a traditional mediation setting, involving the parties, their legal representatives and a trained mediator. Additionally, several popular negotiation courses offered by institutions such as MIT and Harvard University train legal practitioners and business executives to be aware of the distinction when being involved in a negotiation.
Accordingly, negotiation theory should not be considered solely a skill that is relevant to collaborative practitioners, but to the legal profession generally. Despite the differences in approach to alternative dispute resolution, ensuring that the legal profession is adequately trained to delineate between a client’s needs and wants should be recognised in considering the skills that are desirable for all practitioners to hold.
It is clear that collaborative practitioners are required to be appropriately trained in their interaction with fellow lawyers in a collaborative setting, the collaborative model in general and the manner in which the interdisciplinary focus of the practice differs from the general use of experts in a dispute. These are skillsets that, currently, are largely unique and confined to the practice of collaborative law. It is essential for the continued success of collaborative practice within Australia for the distinction between these attributes to other forms of alternative dispute resolution to be clear.
However, it can also be said that collaborative law requires skills that are not solely used within its discipline. A knowledge of negotiation theory is highly desirable for legal practitioners to possess for everyday dispute resolution, not just that involving collaborative practice. To that extent, it is clear that the collaborative practice “Basic Training” requirements of the Law Council of Australia encompass training that is both unique to collaborative practitioners and also relevant to the legal profession generally.
Mr Ben Zocco has recently completed Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees from Monash University and will be commencing as a graduate lawyer with a national law firm in 2017. He has spent the later years of his legal education studying various forms of alternative dispute resolution and looks forward to the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice as a lawyer.