Collaborative law is a confidential, non-adversarial dispute resolution process through which parties are represented by settlement counsel and negotiate a resolution on the basis of their goals and interests. It is designed to minimize damage to relationships and to help parties devise constructive, durable agreements for the benefit of everyone concerned, including the children of divorcing couples. However, it can be too expensive for low-income clients or those of modest means to afford.
To address this problem, Collaborative Divorce Texas (CDT) members Jack Emmott and Norma Trusch, working with Houston Volunteer Lawyers (HVL), created a program to train HVL staff attorneys and pro bono volunteers to handle family cases collaboratively. They devised a streamlined process under which the parties first meet with a volunteer mental health professional (MHP) to discuss their goals and interests and a parenting plan, then participate with their attorneys and the MHP in no more than three joint meetings to negotiate a final agreement. The project requires that one of the attorneys be an experienced collaborative lawyer, while the other can be newly trained, less experienced volunteer attorney.
Under the pilot project, Emmott and Trusch first trained the HVL staff attorneys in the collaborative law process, and prepared standardized forms based on those provided by CDT for use in the process. Two family-law cases involving HVL staff attorneys and veteran collaborative law pro bono attorneys from Collaborative Divorce Houston were successfully resolved using the collaborative divorce process during the pilot.
After completion of the pilot, in 2015 Trusch conducted another collaborative law training for in-house corporate attorneys interested in volunteering for the program, and she and Emmott refined the standardized forms used in the project. At that point HVL assumed full responsibility for operating, publicizing and managing the collaborative pro bono service program for its clients.
The CDT Pro Bono Project was expanded to Dallas in 2016. Sherrie Abney conducted a collaborative law training on behalf of the Section for staff paralegals through the Dallas Volunteer Attorneys Program, and volunteer collaborative lawyers are being solicited to provide pro bono collaborative law services to eligible clients in family law and civil disputes alike through DVAP and Legal Aid of Northwest Texas. It is anticipated that many of the processes and tools developed through the pilot project with HVL will be adapted for use in Dallas as well.
CDT has publicized the Pro Bono Project through its email newsletters to members and addressed it via a CLE program at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the State Bar of Texas. In future years the CDT plans to expand the Pro Bono Project to other areas of Texas and, in addition, to work with local bar associations to make collaborative law services, including Collaborative Divorce, available on a sliding scale or reduced fee basis to clients of modest means.