June 16, 2015

Collaborative vs. Traditional: The Role of the Coach

A couple of weekends ago, I received an email from a client asking me to call her ASAP. When I reached her, she related to me an incident between her and her husband in which a conflict between them escalated to the point of each biting the other on the face. According to her, he bit first and she bit back. The bites were not severe, but my client called the police, and her husband ended up leaving the house.

The following week, I discussed the events with opposing counsel, himself an affable guy, who did an excellent job of relaying his client’s perspective. He started out by saying that his client did not intend to pursue an Order for Protection, to which I wanted to counter, “Your client pursue an OFP? But it was your client who bit my client first!” I did not to do so, because there was nothing to be gained: he had read the police report, he knew that the accounts of the events differed, and for me to get on my high horse about who was more justified in seeking an OFP would have helped no one. We were talking, after all, because he and his client had a proposal that was designed to deescalate matters between the parties. Had I been more outspoken, I might have taken a settlement-oriented conversation and turned it into a head-butting session.

From among the paths winding out of law school and into the world of working lawyers, I chose the one leading to family law. Since my dad is a lawyer and my mom a psychotherapist, I reasoned that family law was the nearest amalgam of these family businesses. There is some merit to that reasoning, but I have learned since law school that I am not, in fact, a psychotherapist. My responsibilities as a lawyer are too literal, surface-oriented, and gruff to be mistaken for those of a mental health professional, which tend instead toward the symbolic, deep, and delicate.

But the events of the weekend involving my client made me wish she and her husband had had a mental health professional to turn to to moderate their conflict, someone better suited to the task than two opposing attorneys more committed to advocating than to moderating. I wish they had had, in a word, a coach, a trained neutral who could lead them through the psychological shoals of the divorce process.

Now, it happens that this particular couple were probably not ideal Collaborative candidates. But had they been, they would likely have had someone else to call after the bite exchange besides their lawyers. They would have had a coach whose job it was to handle and channel conflict between the parties into more productive avenues. Instead, all they had were attorneys whose job it is to take a conflict and solve it by generating still more conflict.

Certainly, this is a bit of a whitewash insofar as a good family law attorney can play both the hawk and the dove, but the essential question is who is in a better position to handle conflict between the parties: an attorney trained in the law and committed to zealous advocacy, or a coach who is a mental health professional trained in conflict management? Which of these would you want moderating your struggles with your future ex-spouse? Personally, I would want both. I would want to know that my legal interests and my interpersonal ones are equally well represented. That is why I would choose a Collaborative divorce for myself: because the role of the neutral coach is vital to the Collaborative process, whereas it is the literal, surface-oriented, and gruff attorney who governs traditional divorce.


Joshua Gitelson comes to the practice of law via a first career in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, as a film editor and writer for motion pictures and television. The son of a lawyer on the one hand and a clinical psychologist on the other, Josh has gravitated toward family law as an amalgam of these two “family businesses.” His parents’ amicable divorce inspired him to help others through the divorce process with as little rancor and conflict as possible. As a result, Josh has embraced the collaborative divorce model as a technique to complement his work on divorce in the traditional litigation mode. Learn more at https://www.lindawray.com/CM/AttorneyBios/JoshuaGitelson.asp.

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One Response to Collaborative vs. Traditional: The Role of the Coach

  1. You nailed it, Josh!

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