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Merlin on a mission to promote the collaborative process

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Merlin on a mission to promote the collaborative process
Robert J. Merlin

Robert J. Merlin

Longtime collaborative family law advocate Robert Merlin has become president of the Florida Academy of Collaborative Professionals and is looking to expand the collaborative message, including to other practice areas.

He said that goal is becoming easier as more attorneys find out about and embrace the collaborative process.

The academy will be taking advantage of some fortuitous timing as part of its efforts.

“The United Nations has an annual program called the World Creativity and Innovation Week, and each year they have a different theme. The theme this coming year [April 15-21, 2022], is collaboration,” Merlin said. “That certainly fits right in with collaborative professionalism in the state of Florida.

“We are going to be doing events around the state during World Creativity and Innovation Week. We hope to involve communities and inform the media about the collaborative process and benefits of it.”

The schedule of activities is still being worked out, he said.

The academy is also continuing to reach out to attorneys, including for the first time having a collaborative segment presented during the annual family law certification review course.

“It’s interesting, there used to be a lot of very experienced family attorneys who opposed the collaborative process because they didn’t understand it,” Merlin said. “Now many experienced family law attorneys and many former chairs of the [Bar’s] Family Law Section are active collaborative practitioners.”

The collaborative process, he added, fits in with the Bar’s recent emphasis on promoting the mental health and wellness of its members, because the collaborative process is usually less stressful than litigation, for the lawyers as well as the clients.

“I think I’m literally going to live longer. I reduced the amount of stress in my practice,” Merlin said.

Instead of bashing it out in a contested and frequently contentious court proceeding, the parties, each represented by an attorney, agree to share information and negotiate, he said. Mental health and financial experts are brought in as needed.

(Merlin said about 60% of the FACP’s members are attorneys, with mental-health professionals making up the next largest contingent and financial experts accounting for most of the rest.)

“It’s easier to manage, lower stress, it’s much, much better for the parties. Once attorneys find out about it, it resonates with the vast majority of them,” Merlin said. “The process is private, the couple is not limited by what a judge can do or decide. They can be very creative and formulate a solution that meets the needs of their particular family.

“They’re not gambling on what’s happening with their future, they’re deciding what their future is. The judge doesn’t know the family as well as the family does. Even if they have conflict, we can help them resolve the conflict.”

He also said family cases that resolve through the collaborative process have a fraction of post-judgment litigation compared with traditional cases.

“It almost never happens it the collaborative process,” Merlin said. “Along the way, we teach couples how to resolve their differences….They wind up having a much better post-marriage life than they would have in a post-litigation proceeding.”

The COVID-19 pandemic both helped and impeded the collaborative process, he said. The hard part was running courses for professionals joining the collaborative system because training relied heavily on in-person sessions.

“We’re trying to organize two [in-person] sessions in the next few months. We’ve done some virtually, it’s just not the same, you can’t have the same interactions,” Merlin said. “When people train, there’s a lot of interactions and discussion as well as demonstrations of how the process works. It’s more difficult to do in a virtual setting.”

At the same time, he said collaborative practice itself has adapted well to remote operations.

“It has expanded the ability of individual professionals to practice throughout the state. The meetings are taking place virtually,” Merlin said, adding he represented a New York client in a Jacksonville case that would have been impossible for him to do in person.

“It expands the opportunities for our members to practice collaboratively around the state and to have relationships with other professionals around the state,” he said. “It’s been good for the collaborative process.”

Merlin said he expects the collaborative process will continue to expand, not only in family law but also in other practice areas, noting representatives from two different practice areas in the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section have expressed interest.

“This is a trend around the world, keeping people out of court, the early resolution of cases. The public policy of our state in statute talks about early resolution of disputes. That doesn’t just apply to families,” he said. “In probate, it’s virtually the same relationships [as family law]. It’s family members, possibly fighting over the inheritances from a family member who died. It’s family members having a problem with their relationship. Let’s help them resolve it.”

The FACP’s 10th Annual Conference, set for June 9-11 at the JW Marriott on Water Street in Tampa, will be an opportunity for interested professionals to learn more about collaborative law, Merlin said. The schedule and programs are still being worked out. Registration and more information can be found at https://www.collaborativepracticeflorida.com/facps-10th-annual-conference/.

Merlin, board certified in family law, a former chair of the Family Law Rules Committee, one of the Florida pioneers in collaborative law, and a lawyer since 1979, said collaborative law continues to fascinate him.

“It really resonated with me. I like being able to use my communication skills and negotiating skills. I still have my knowledge of Florida law, but it’s used in a much different way,” he said. “It’s challenging. I’ve learned about mental health and family issues, and tax issues and sophisticated financial issues because in the collaborative process, we can talk with professionals on a one-to-one basis.

“We have an open conversation and we talk about things.”

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