- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2007

COLUMBIA, Md. (AP) — Howard County divorce lawyer Jolie Gelman Weinberg applies the “Jerry Springer” test to potential clients.

If a couple comes in with issues that would make a good topic on the show, Miss Weinberg said, somewhat facetiously, they’re probably not good candidates for a collaborative divorce.

Lawyer Elizabeth J. Case assumes that a client who comes in proclaiming, “I’d rather pay you than pay my spouse,” is also communicating they might not be ready for such a process.

But a growing number of couples and their attorneys are turning to collaborative divorce as an alternative to costly litigation and even mediation.

Unlike mediated divorces, both sides have attorneys throughout the process and all sides communicate, including attorneys, clients, divorce coaches, a child specialist and financial planner.

Unlike litigation, the process is not supposed to be adversarial. That last aspect makes collaborative divorces controversial in legal circles. Earlier this year, the Colorado Bar Association declared collaborative-law agreements unethical, arguing that every attorney has an obligation to fight for a client’s interests.

“There’s this fiction in collaborative law that everyone’s always telling the truth,” said Harry Siegel, founder of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association’s family-law section. “If someone’s lying, they could actually more successfully get away with it in a collaborative model than in the court system, where there are checks and balances.”

However, legislatures in California, North Carolina and Texas have authorized collaborative law. Bar association panels in five states have issued opinions in favor of it. Maryland’s judiciary has embraced it.

Supporters think the four-way collaborative divorce agreement, signed by attorneys and their clients, is critical to minimizing conflict. The attorneys and spouses agree to try to reduce the negative consequences of the split and to focus on everyone’s “future well-being.”

Miss Case said the presence of attorneys throughout the process ensures that a more strong-willed and financially savvy spouse doesn’t get an unfair advantage.

Baltimore lawyer James W. Motsay, who serves on the board of the Maryland Collaborative Law Association, said one reason the strategy has not taken off is because it is less lucrative for attorneys.

Attorneys realize they “can only earn ‘X’ number of dollars on a collaborative case, as opposed to going to litigation,” he said. “They ask themselves: Is this going to be enough money? Is it worth my effort?”

But Tom Berg, 37, a general contractor from Westminster, said he is glad he chose the collaborative approach, although he found it emotionally draining.

If you have a better relationship, the kids do much better,” he said. “But collaborative divorce doesn’t work for people who can’t have a civil relationship.”

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