This article was originally published in the April 4, 2017 issue of the Pensacola News Journal.
A group of Panhandle lawyers has started a nonprofit that aims to reduce the cost and emotional turmoil of divorces.
West Florida Collaborative Law has been in existence for only a few months, but Milton lawyer John Susko said the group already has more than a dozen attorneys, as well as financial and mental health professionals, who are helping grow the program.
The idea behind collaborative family law is that instead of spending time and money in courtrooms, couples talk out their divorce through mediation and back-and-forth discussion, Susko said.
It’s not a new idea — collaborative law has been around in other states for decades — but Florida officially recognized the process only by passing a bill in last year’s legislative session.
“(Traditional litigation) is not a pleasant situation,” Susko said. “I don’t think that family law cases were ever meant to be decided by men and women in black robes.”
Collaborative family law saves money by using a mutual financial professional and time because there’s no need to wait for hearings, court dates and at attorney filings, Susko said.
For the lawyers, however, the process requires a shift in thought, according to Amy Kicklighter Waddell, an attorney with Waddell & Waddell.
“It’s inherent with litigation you have strategies as an attorney that if you’re going to court you don’t want the other side to know about,” she said.
Having just finished her first local collaborative law case, Waddell said shifting from the “us vs. them” mentality an attorney faces in court was an adjustment, but it allowed more forthright discussion.
“I’ve never been able to openly discuss my legal arguments, but with this, there was no reason for me to hide the ball because it wasn’t going to court,” she said. “I could say this issue is very hot for my client, it’s very emotional and let’s keep that in mind when we go in here and come up with a plan.”
Mediating outside the courtroom means less backlog in the court system itself, Waddell said.
“When I was first approached about this, I didn’t get it,” she said. “I thought this seems like a waste of money, let’s send an offer and if they don’t like it, we’ll go to court. … Then I realized the parties are invested in the process. The parties have to want to do it this way.”
Susko said when a couple begin the collaborative process, they establish ground rules, which include the caveat that if ever it becomes hostile and the process is no longer working, they’ll go to traditional court. Their collaborative lawyers couldn’t represent them in court, and the mental health and financial professionals who had been working on the case couldn’t be involved in traditional proceedings or called as witnesses.
Susko said collaborative law has been used in other states in cases outside of family law, including in wrongful death and elder care situations.
Waddell said it’s about understanding the other side’s point-of-view, and she expects as more Florida families hear about the collaborative process, they’ll opt for the out-of-court option.
“People come in thinking it’s all about the fight, but it’s not,” she said. “That’s not what family law is about.”