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Minnesota lawyers are trying to make divorce… friendly?

“They’re a little less aggressive. They’re more cheerful, friendly people.”

“They’re a little less aggressive. They’re more cheerful, friendly people.” Unsplash.com

Sue Kittleson of Bloomington is a stay-at-home mom, taking care of her 7-year-old adopted son with special needs. She's married to a man named Rick, and they also have a 20-year-old daughter.

And she's getting a divorce.

She and Rick have “different value systems,” she says. But the idea of going through the legal system and dividing up their lives seemed destructive and impossibly expensive. Their son needs two parents, and she wanted to be partners in raising him.

That’s when she heard about collaborative divorce. It sounds like an oxymoron. It’s not.

Collaborative divorce has a long history in the Twin Cities. In 1990, Stuart Webb, a lawyer in Minneapolis, had been practicing divorce law for 15 years when he won another hard-fought battle and discovered something.

“He felt terrible,” says Louise Livesay-Al, the St. Paul lawyer who helped Kittleson with her case. He wondered what divorce would be like if people were forced to work through their issues together and come to a mutual agreement. So he devised a plan.

Two lawyers work together representing each half of the marriage. At the start of the process, they make an agreement: They're not going to court. If at any point a client decides to take the case to a judge, neither of the lawyers will represent them. It’s an incentive to focus on common goals and find a solution. Nobody wins. But hopefully both parties achieve something they can live with.

When there’s a custody issue, they bring in a child specialist to help with a parenting plan. When dividing money, they bring in a financial expert. It all ends up being a lot less expensive than going to court.

Webb became one of the first collaborative divorce lawyers in the country. Livesay-Al thinks there are something like 8,000 or 9,000 out there now -- but plenty of people still haven’t even heard of it. Kittleson certainly hadn’t before a therapist recommended it. Livesay-Al thinks there just hasn’t been enough time for it to become mainstream.

“The legal community is slow to change in general,” she says.

June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, has collaborative lawyers visit her classes regularly. “They’re a little less aggressive,” she says. “They’re more cheerful, friendly people.”

It’s a good premise, she says, but only when it’s feasible. Sometimes divorcing couples just can’t work together -- like when domestic violence is involved, or if one parent is deeply suspicious of the other, as in cases of possible child abuse.

Or even when clients “genuinely and deeply disagree” on an issue and may not be able to compromise.

She cited a case where two Hasidic Jews had gotten an arranged marriage at a young age. As the wife grew older, she discovered an attraction to women. The problem was the kids. An agreement they signed before marriage dictated their children be raised in the Hasidic faith, which frowns on homosexuality. Mom wanted to tell them about her orientation. Dad wanted her to keep it a secret.

Carbone says collaborative divorce depends upon a reservoir of goodwill -- both between the lawyers and clients.

“People getting divorced tend not to have goodwill,” she says. Even in the best-case scenarios, a collaborative divorce can often end up resembling a traditional divorce in the end. As for saving money -- yes, it’s cheaper than going to trial.

“But anything is cheaper than going to trial,” she says.

Kittleson’s divorce is in its final stages. She’s agreed to go back to school and become a medical transcriptionist – maybe sooner than she’d dreamed about doing it, but part of the compromise is getting her own income as soon as possible.

They’ve decided when their son will be with one of them, and when they’ll be together, like attending the State Fair as a family this year.

“It’s very important for him to know that Dad is still Dad,” she says. “It’s important for him to know from the get-go that we’re still a family unit, and Rick and I have to set aside our issues.”