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Finding personal peace in a conflict-driven profession

Cindy L. Zatzman

Four years ago I almost fled the legal profession. I was burned out. I told some of my friends that I simply didn’t want to have conflict as a driving force in my life any longer. I felt that continuing to engage in a litigation-based practice was personally exhausting and emotionally draining, and that it did not serve to benefit my community in any significant way. Rather, I felt myself an instrument of destruction as a legal practitioner.

In 2000, I began learning about therapeutic jurisprudence and all its progeny: healing practice. Although I still toyed with the idea of abandoning legal practice, the prospect that I could practice law as a healing art intrigued me and kept me in it. I’ve come to find my place within the healing practices, and embrace collaborative family practice as a special way in which I can serve my community.

What I find at this juncture in my career is that some members of the profession scoff at the idea that family law should be treated as a healing practice. I recently attended a continuing legal education program on family law and was surprised at the response of other attorneys to my choice of practice area. The conversation was moving along smoothly until someone asked me what I do. When I responded that I am attempting to limit my practice to collaborative family practice, she reacted by saying, “Oh, you’re one of those. ” It was impossible to miss the disdain in her voice. On the plus side, I also know that not all of my litigation-minded colleagues look at things this way.

Perhaps some of the resistance to such newer models as collaborative family law is based in litigation training. As I recently stated in correspondence to my opposing counsel in a litigated family law matter:

“I know that it is difficult for litigators to shift out of litigation mode into healing perspective. I really do understand; having a litigator as opposing counsel actually impacts my ability to communicate with complete effectiveness when matters of concern to my client occur. It makes it difficult for me to suggest [alternative interventions which] could only serve to benefit the parties in their efforts toward peaceful and healing resolution of their relationship problems. It makes it difficult for me to suggest that my client is seeking reconciliation, if possible, but that my client is aware that there may be no alternative but for these parties to terminate their personal intimate relationship while still moving forward in a healthy co-parenting relationship to benefit their minor [children].”

In training to become litigators, we are trained to distrust opposing counsel, to hide strategy, and to manipulate evidence to benefit our client. As an attorney/healer, I regard my job a bit differently, but have to adhere to certain litigation tactics that do not, in my personal and professional opinion, serve either of our clients most efficiently or effectively.

My client came to me because I favor collaboration over litigation; I prefer to see a healthy, restructured family at the end of my representation rather than the typical result of a litigated resolution of family law matters: a hostile, resentful, and angry family, often with remaining communications problems.

I have become a zealous advocate for the prospect of healing families through collaborative process, and in particular through the use of interdisciplinary teams. I’ve been rebuked, sometimes rudely, by others in the profession; this is because I attempt to encourage lawyers to work side-by-side with other professionals, particularly mental health professionals, in guiding families to reach their own resolution in dissolution of marriage proceedings and other family law matters. I even go so far (and I am aware that this proposition is controversial) as to advocate that this process can be used for resolution of virtually all family law matters – including domestic violence cases.

Many legal professionals regard dissolution and other family matters as purely legal problems, which we would be uniquely qualified to solve. But I’ve come to believe, through research and observation, that family law matters are not simply legal problems; rather, I regard them as social problems. The law is only part of the application that will ultimately resolve family matters in a healthy way. I am convinced that an appropriate interdisciplinary team, comprised of legal and mental health practitioners working with financial experts, is most likely to help create a healthy, restructured family at the end of the process.

What, you may be asking, does all of this have to do with finding personal peace? I entered the legal profession to help people; I saw that my work was often detrimental to my clients; I learned about practices that would allow me to be a healer; I’ve chosen to apply healing theory to my practice; I’ve come full circle.

I don’t intend to imply that we should abandon litigation. My perspective is simply this: Not all practitioners who wish to assist clients with conflict resolution are suited to litigation as the resolution “method of choice.” While litigation may always have a place in dispute resolution, I would hope that it will become the tool of last resort, and that our profession will encourage the growth and further development of other dispute resolution techniques as a group of first-choice options.

Cindy L. Zatzman is 2004-2005 chair of the Quality of Life & Career Committee. She is the founder and president of Practical Ethics, Inc. in Cooper City. This column is published under the sponsorship of the Quality of Life and Career Committee. The committee’s Web site is at www.fla-lap.org/qlsm. The Quality of Life and Career Committee, in cooperation with the Florida State University College of Law, also has an interactive listserv titled “The Healthy Lawyer.”

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