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Chicago attorney: 'Divorce Corp.' should heighten interest in collaborative law

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A Chicago attorney says a recently released documentary film, Divorce Corp., should prompt more divorcing couples to explore Collaborative Law rather than the traditional—and deeply flawed—process of family law court.

In the documentary, director Joseph Sorge exposes many of the troubling facets of family law court. Throughout the 93-minute film, he highlights extreme examples that have hurt couples and families, as well as undermined trust in the system.

Sandra Crawford, a longtime leader in the practice of collaborative law, acknowledges the extreme nature of examples cited in the film. But, she notes, even common realities of the process have been chilling enough for a rising number of couples who have been turning to collaborative law.

“Collaborative law is a much kinder, much gentler approach to dissolving marriage,” says Crawford. “It’s absolutely vital that anyone who watches the movie—or otherwise knows only this knock-down, drag-out way of divorcing—becomes educated about this much better alternative.”

A resident of Lake in the Hills and former president of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois, Crawford in January met one of the film’s producers after she was invited to attend the premiere screening of Divorce Corp.

“Although the stories in the film do not reflect a typical case in family law court, a typical case should be scary enough to give anyone pause before going down that path,” Crawford says. “I have seen many families torn apart by divorce, which is tragic. And it’s all so avoidable.”

Crawford has experienced divorce personally: in 1990, she was licensed to practice law in Illinois as a recently divorced mother of twin daughters. Now remarried and founder of a Chicago-based law practice, since 2002 she has been helping couples through the collaborative divorce process and, since 1994, through the mediated process of divorce.

At the end of Divorce Corp., Sorge leaves this question hanging: “Should we do away with family law court?” It’s a rhetorical question, at best, says Crawford, because “eradicating family law court simply won’t happen.”

“A much more constructive undertaking,” she adds, “is to ask, ‘What steps can we take to ensure that family law increasingly shifts out of the court system so that collaborative divorces become the norm?’”

In Crawford’s view, the first and foremost step is education. She boils down collaborative law in this straightforward philosophy: “Even if your marriage fails,” Crawford observes, “that doesn’t mean you have to carry that failure over into your post-marriage lives.”

Created more than 20 years ago and now practiced in at least 25 countries, Collaborative Divorce (aka Collaborative Law or Collaborative Practice) has served thousands of families who have benefited from the approach. Known as a “no-court-client-centered” dispute resolution process, separating spouses can use it with the help of professionals (licensed legal, mental health and financial professionals) trained in collaborative law and mediation.

Some key components to the Collaborative Law model are:

*The professionals (lawyers, mental health and financial professionals) enter a written commitment not to go to court;
*The commitment of those professionals to withdraw if either or both of the spouses decide that litigation (i.e. third-party decision making by a judge) is necessary or desired;
*The commitment of those professionals to obtain and continue to pursue specialized training in the area of conflict management and communication skills.

“Anyone contemplating divorce or who knows someone in that situation should make a point of understanding collaborative law and other alternatives to a court process, such as private mediation and unbundled legal services,” Crawford says.

In Cook and surrounding counties, a “courthouse divorce” typically takes 18 to 24 months to conclude and costs upwards of $50,000 ($25,000 per spouse), she notes.

At least nine in 10 courthouse divorces end with the entry of an agreement, referred to as a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) and a judgment by consent. Sadly, these agreements—all too often literally finalized on the courthouse steps--are poorly crafted, easily misunderstood and inadequately integrated by the divorcing parties, says Crawford.

“This is not a good blueprint for any family’s future,” she concludes. “And if often opens the door to even more litigation down the road.”

Sandra Crawford can be reached at www.lawcrawford.com or lawcrawford@att.net.

For a comprehensive list of attorneys and other professionals worldwide who actively practice Collaborative Law, visit www.collaborativepractice.com.

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