Putting the Brakes on Conflict: Barry University law students and nonlawyer professionals drive “neutral” divorce clinic
Her days a blur of caring for and shuttling around her four school-aged children and working full-time as a receptionist at a car dealership, Tisha Lopez, 36, had few spare moments to research the process of filing for a divorce — but she needed one.
She heard the horror stories of bitterness and fighting, of spouses who wanted to make each other’s lives miserable, and worried about the cost. One divorce attorney had quoted her $3,000, and she didn’t know how she could come up with that much money, even in installments.
She considered doing the paperwork herself.
“The packet is huge, and you don’t want to mess up on that packet,” Lopez said. “It was overwhelming just looking at it. There was no way. I didn’t even know how to get started.”
When Lopez mentioned the hurdles she faced to a friend who had recently graduated from Barry University School of Law, he suggested she apply to Barry’s Collaborative Family Law Clinic,1 w hich is based on a new, law student-driven pro bono model for handling divorce cases. Their approach seeks to minimize conflict and achieve the best outcome for the family as a whole. The clinic helps couples divorce in a nonlitigious atmosphere, guided by an interdisciplinary team. Each semester, it takes on two pro bono cases for clients who meet income requirements.
Opened in 2014, the clinic is only the second of its type in the country after Loyola Law School’s clinic in California.2 B arry University Dean and Professor of Law Letitia Diaz, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Ruth Witherspoon, Professor of Law Marsha Freeman, Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida Associate Administrative Judge Alice Blackwell, Teresa Parnell, a licensed psychologist and Florida Supreme Court-certified mediator, and attorney Brenda London collaborated and planned for two years to create the clinic. London agreed to serve as director and become an adjunct law professor, stepping away from her family law practice one day each week to teach collaborative law and oversee the clinic.
To Lopez, it sounded too good to be true. In the span of less than two months, with just two on-site meetings, she could have a signed divorce agreement. Not only would the clinic provide free legal representation, but she and her husband would be guided by a mental health “neutral,” a financial neutral, and case managers.
“I really liked the fact that they were trying to make things as fair as possible for both of us,” Lopez said.
Through the collaborative process, couples agree to make decisions together, with support from their team of professionals, rather than allowing a court to make decisions for them.
“Everyone signs a contract called a Collaborative Participation Agreement, the heart of which is that everyone agrees not to litigate in court and to be fully transparent with all information,” London said. “Should the process end without a Collaborative Marital Settlement Agreement, the team will withdraw from the case, and will not proceed to litigated court action. This withdrawal provision is actually one of the most important clauses of the contract because it ensures that everyone, including the professionals, is fully committed to resolving all issues no matter how difficult, within the collaborative process.”
Lopez and her husband were accepted as a pro bono case for the fall 2017 semester.
The second- and third-year law students and professionals who would work their case had completed a two-day introductory training in collaborative law before the semester began. Throughout the semester, they met with London once a week and had clinic time, during which they discussed and prepared for the family, and class time, which was devoted to becoming proficient in the collaborative law process.
“During the actual collaborative meetings, the students take the lead,” London said. “They prepare all the documents for the meetings. They speak to and prepare the clients on what to expect. The mentor attorneys attend the full-team meetings and provide the necessary legal support for the clients during those meetings.”
After a phone conference to discuss her case with Angela Drummond, the law student serving as first chair, Lopez was ready for the first meeting on October 27.
“I thought it was going to be super intimidating,” Lopez remembers. “I walked into this room, and it’s all these people. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. They’re going to hear all this stuff. I have no idea who they are.’”
London knows clients are nervous at first.
“Sounds like a lot of people, right? But it is only a concern during the first few minutes as I get everyone situated,” she said. “Thereafter, it works like magic, and the clients embrace this team of volunteers who have assembled to help them. I’m always amazed at how quick that happens, how we are able to create a safe space that allows the clients to discuss the difficult issues in their marriage and trust that the team will help them.”
To get started, the team asked Lopez and her husband what their goals were.
Lopez’s goal was “to be cordial to each other,” especially in front of their kids, who were ages 4, 10, 12, and 16.
“I wouldn’t want to take everything from him. But I wanted to be able to have what I needed for my children so that we can have enough to survive,” she said.
She appreciated how well the team had prepared for the meeting.
“Every little detail was brought up,” Lopez said. “Stuff that I didn’t even think about. I shared my bank statements, my credit card statements, everything about my life and what we do every day, and what I spend my money on.”
Gene Hess, a CPA, volunteered her time as the couple’s financial neutral.
“They took all that information and did a spreadsheet,” Lopez said. “They said, OK, this is where you’re at. What you need to cut. They gave us a budget so that I can live comfortably, and the same for him [Lopez’s husband].”
The team works together ahead of meetings to prepare for issues that arise and difficult conversations.
“Each attorney prepares with their client prior to the meeting, and the professionals meet 30 minutes before each meeting to pre-brief, and 30 minutes after each meeting to debrief,” London said. “This is essential to excellent teamwork. Preparation is paramount to success, and this is no exception.”
London said the collaborative process avoids many of the pitfalls of litigation, which is adversarial by nature and can inflict further damage on family relationships, including with the children.
“These families come back over and over again to the court system for resolution of problems, because that is what they learned,” London said.
Lopez liked the fact that, unlike traditional divorce, she had access to a psychologist. She and her husband worked on a parenting plan with their mental health neutral, Parnell, so that their children would have equal time with both.
“I felt like, wow, this should just be the standard in every divorce case,” Lopez said.
At the second meeting, the team went over paperwork with the Lopezes. They discussed alimony and health care for their children.
“They were so good to us,” Lopez said. “I was really impressed. And grateful for everything they did.”
the time the semester ended, Lopez had the completed, notarized paperwork, and was just working on coming up with enough money to file.
“I felt very strongly that if we were going to succeed in changing the way families approached conflict in Florida, we had to make it accessible to everyone, not just those that could afford it,” London said.
working to create a more efficient and less confrontational model of divorce, London feels the Barry Law School Collaborative Family Law Clinic “ultimately has better outcomes driven by both education and self-determination.”
“Start to finish on a whole, a collaborative case can be done in months not years,” London said. “The entire process is driven by the clients and their needs. The foundation and strength of the clinic is to offer low-income families an opportunity to have the benefit of a full collaborative team so that they can create the best outcome possible for their family.”
1 Barry University, In-House Clinics, https://www.barry.edu/law/future-students/academic-program/clinics.html.
2 Loyola Law School, Loyola Center for Conflict Resolution, http://www.lls.edu/academics/centers/loyolacenterforconflictresolution/.
JESSICA BROWN is the communications director for The Florida Bar Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide greater access to justice.