Last March, when Judge Madeleine Landrieu entered a workshop on collaborative divorce at Loyola University's School of Law, she was surprised -- and inspired -- by the high turnout. "I thought if we had 40 people there, Great, the training session is a success,'" Landrieu says. "There were over 170."
Loyola's Continuing Legal Education (CLE) program presented the program for local attorneys, judges, mental health professionals and financial advisors. The workshop's popularity signals the dire need seen by many local legal and family advocates for collaborative divorce, a process that avoids in-court litigation by having all decisions involved in the divorce -- from splitting up property to custody arrangements -- made through a team consisting of two attorneys, a mental health professional and a financial advisor.
Collaborative divorce is catching on across the country, with Louisiana at the forefront of its development. To Landrieu, that's good news.
"[Collaborative divorce] is the most exciting new process in the area of family court," says Landrieu, who from her bench in Orleans Parish Civil Court Division E has seen more than her share of family tragedies played out in the courtroom.
Landrieu says collaborative divorce "is up and running in New Orleans and across the state, with many practitioners who are eager to take on these cases." There is no rule or procedure barring the process from any court, Landrieu explains. The only barriers are lack of public awareness and systemic support.
All professionals involved in collaborative divorce must receive training in the process. Advocates for further use of collaborative divorce say it's cost-effective for participants because it reduces time spent litigating in court. They also say it reduces a court's case-load and makes it possible for greater attention to be given to more complicated cases. Collaborative divorce can also be better for the kids, they say.
"It's hard for divorcing couples to face the issues that are going to be important as they restructure their family," Landrieu says. "[Collaborative divorce] helps them transition through that process."
Landrieu cautions that the collaborative divorce method will not work for all couples, namely those with such a high level of animosity and lack of communication that they can't reach decisions together. "If you can't make a decision, then we have to decide for you," she says. "But it's best for the couple to decide. Divorce is more than a legal decision. It's also a psychological and financial process, and the court is not necessarily the best at handling those processes."
As Landrieu puts it, right now most people divorce by "file and wait or wait and file," referring to the state law requiring couples to be separated for six months before divorce can be granted. Thus, a spouse suing for divorce either leaves, files for divorce and waits for the six-month period to end or leaves their home for six months and then files. Either way, Landrieu and others hope collaborative divorce changes the entire culture of often-contentious and painful divorce decisions.
Paving the way for collaborative divorce on local and international levels is Ross Foote, an Alexandria-based former attorney and judge who stepped down after nearly 14 years on the bench to advocate for collaborative divorce full-time. "My wife has said it's turned into a religion for me, and I spend all my time proselytizing," Foote says.
Joking aside, Foote says he's motivated by what he witnessed in court. "I had been fighting for 12 years for some kind of domestic reform with divorce, to protect the children involved," he says. "Watching the carnage was so hard. The court system was a player in people's private lives, and it doesn't belong there."
Foote is widely credited with helping transform what was once a loose concept into a viable legal option. Collaborative divorce -- the model that Foote showcases around the nation and even internationally through his Alexandria-based International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP) -- was created with the help of a $200,000 grant from the private Rapides Foundation. During his research, Foote determined that a team approach -- one that covers all aspects of divorce, not just the legal ramifications -- would best serve families. Communication, he says, is key.
"The legal system is based on an adversarial process, where there is a clear winner and loser," Foote says. "That's just not reality with divorce."
Foote recalls numerous success stories. One couple met with the mental health professionals (explicitly not labeled therapists) and, after talking through their problems, no longer wanting a divorce. Another couple was so pleased with the ease of their split, they both celebrated over champagne afterward. Foote is optimistic about the future of collaborative divorce. "I think we're seeing a true sea change, a true paradigm shift, in family law," he says. "We have to change the culture of this conflict. Divorce should be a family process with a legal outcome, not the other way around."