Family Law

Looking for a more human side of the law? Collaborative practice might be for you


One judge. Two lawyers. And a cold courtroom. That’s how most family disputes are settled. The typical outcome? Pain, distress and heartbreak. For parents and their children.

And it’s no wonder this is the case – given that it’s a third-party, a stranger to the family, making the decisions.

Collaborative practice, on the other hand, points people away from the adversarial system – and guides them towards a more human process instead.

Together with Jackie Jones, Family Law Accredited Specialist, and David Roberts, Divorce Coach and Mediator, who are facilitating a new course on Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice Training with Nigel Nicholls for the College, we look more closely at collaborative practice. And explain why it’s an increasingly appealing career path for lawyers far and wide.

Understanding collaborative practice

Collaborative practice is a process of dealing with family breakdown – without the court system.

Instead of treating disputes as conflicts with winners and losers, it invites both parties to work together to achieve a meaningful, mutually beneficial outcome.

“It’s very much a team approach, where the parties and a team of professionals work together to reach the best possible solution,” says Jackie.

As a fly on the wall, you’d observe two people in a room, respectfully discussing their problems and sharing information openly. Each of them would be supported by their own collaborative lawyer, and together with a neutral ‘coach’ or facilitator, the whole group works together to find acceptable solutions.

Collaborative practice is unique because it brings together all the experts needed to help resolve family law disputes, in a non-adversarial approach.

This mean family lawyers, mental health experts (including mediators acting as coaches), child advocates and financial advisors can form a team as required by the particular needs of the case. While each of them is a professional in their own right, they all have additional training to work collaboratively in the best interests of the children and family at large.

But the keys to the entire process?

Creating an environment that promotes trust andhonesty, and assists the parties to work together with professional assistance to resolve their issues. And if either party decides to leave the collaborative process, the lawyers will not represent them in court.

Changing lives – for the better

Collaborative lawyers guide families towards meaningful and practical outcomes. They do this by assisting both parties to remain on the strongest possible terms following separation.

This is important when selling properties, dividing shared assets – and above all, when raising children together following a separation. Because good communication lays a foundation for healthy parenting plans – and the best outcome for the kids involved.

As a collaborative lawyer, you’ll help achieve win-win situations for families and you’ll find ways to reduce the emotional impact and disruption of significant change.

“Instead of focussing on a percentage split, we map out the needs, interests and concerns of both parties and then explore options that will satisfy these,” says David.

Avoiding courtroom anxiety

The adversarial system can be highly stressful. You have to read through countless legal precedents, prepare for hours on end, and take to a crowded courtroom to fight tooth and nail against an opposing lawyer.

Win or lose – you’re still witness to families being torn apart, day after day.

This anxiety is greatly reduced in collaborative practice. In fact, the practice was first developed in the 1990s because Stuart Webb, an American lawyer, was tired of seeing family members pitted against each other in court. So he created his own unique process to avoid this.

This process now known as Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice has been adopted in many countries throughout the world.

Broadening your legal toolkit

You’ll flex new mental and emotional muscles when you work in collaborative practice.

And while your legal knowledge will provide a helpful foundation – you’ll hone new skills through training and development.

Expect to work from a place of greater understanding as you approach cases from a new perspective. Instead of fighting for just your own client to win, you’ll balance the needs of everyone involved to reach the best solution.

Importantly, you’ll learn how to become a true team player, as you’ll be working with other professionals from different disciplines. Inevitably, you will find this a more satisfying and less stressful approach to your work.

Building client trust

Lawyers that represent a client in collaborative practice agree not to represent either party should they fail to reach an outcome at the end of the collaborative process.

That’s why clients trust that their lawyers will work hard to represent them in reaching agreement.

As David explains, “There are no secret strategies where lawyers say ‘I think we can get them on this’. Everything is out in the open – with both parties, the lawyers, the coach, and other professionals sitting around a table together.”

Making a genuine difference

Collaborative practice is highly effective in the right circumstances. And for families that go through the process, the vast majority are able to avoid the court system altogether.

These success rates make collaborative practice an attractive option for lawyers looking to make a difference through their work.

At the same time, there are a number of other benefits that make it a better option, for both lawyers and families. For instance, it’s faster, more affordable and based on consensus. All of which contribute to the sense of fulfilment you receive when working in this area.

As the effectiveness of collaborative practice becomes more apparent, demand is growing, opening new opportunities.

“When the right case is chosen, collaborative practice has a very high success rate,” David shares. “I’ve been doing this for just over 10 years now – and I can only think of a very small number of cases where an agreement hasn’t been reached.”

Want to explore a career in collaborative practice?

Sign up for the College of Law’s in-demand course: Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice Training. Taught by Jackie Jones, David Roberts and Nigel Nicholls, this three-day intensive will teach you the skills to master dispute resolution using a team-based, holistic approach.