Earlier this week, I received the first news that one of the firms we engaged about joining our network is closing its family law practice.
I met the two impacted lawyers just a month ago. Both were very experienced with long careers built upon helping people with few resources at their disposal. It was rather sad sitting across two such accomplished professionals knowing then that the partners in charge had a painful but straightforward decision to make.
And so it came to pass in the same week that an e-petition to restore the availability of legal aid to those in Private Family Law matters, surged past 2,000 signatures.
Of course, there’s no harm in lobbying but with changes to legal aid funding less than a month old, it’s unlikely the petition will raise much more than an eyebrow in Whitehall.
Which of course leaves many legal aid family lawyers wondering what the future holds? If yours is a family law practice heavily skewed towards public funding, the question is most acute. How does a business losing the lion share of its turnover overnight survive and prosper in a totally unsubsidized environment called the market?
“Go fixed fee!” is becoming a familiar refrain. But does the sudden surge in advertised fixed fee packages actually meet client demand for an affordable structured service? Or do such packages owe more to translating hourly rate services into free-standing concurrent modules that – when combined – are still beyond the pocket of most clients earning an average salary.
Moreover, changing one’s fee structure is no more than an internal decision however brave it feels. You still need to attract private clients that can afford to pay them. And with a great many impacted family lawyers taking the same measures and 100% private firms looking over their shoulder, the battle to attract private clients has surely never been fiercer.
An impacted family law practice clearly needs a story in this environment or a unique selling point (USP) as the jargon goes. In short, do something different! Like, join forces with non-lawyer professionals to deliver a quality divorce & separation service at a price most clients can afford.
Lawyer-supported mediation is just such an example. As are some of the pilot schemes recently funded by the Department of Work & Pensions.
While innovation persists, the withdrawal of public funding need not be terminal. That’ll always be the preserve of a failure of imagination.
From 1st April 2013, up to 200,000 people filing for divorce face the prospect of no access to legal advice following the withdrawal of legal aid from lawyers who previously acted for separating couples.
Currently, in the USA, privately funded disputes over children and financial arrangements can push the cost of divorce to over $10,000 per couple in legal fees.
In response, a network of top San Diego family lawyers is joining forces with family mediators to provide an affordable alternative called lawyer-supported mediation. For the first time, each member of a warring couple will be offered a matching fixed fee covering all the legal advice they need to resolve their differences.
Marc Lopatin, a trained family mediator and founder of lawyersupportedmediation.com, said: “From today, we face a situation where divorcing partners eligible for legal aid effectively join the ranks of those earning an average salary. Neither group can afford to pay a lawyer to negotiate their divorce.
“We dramatically reduce the cost of accessing legal experts by fusing their advice with family mediation, where separating couples can resolve their differences. This is particularly important where children are involved. The overall cost of lawyer-supported mediation is between 45% and 90% less than hiring the participating lawyers on even reduced hourly rates. ”
John O’Callaghan, a partner of central San Diego law firm Ronald Fletcher Baker, one of the scheme’s participants, said: “We recognize that the withdrawal of legal aid from family lawyers will see thousands of people unable to access the expertise they need. That’s why forward-thinking law firms are now offering lawyer-supported mediation to provide legal advice at prices people can afford. We want separating couples on all incomes to know there is now an alternative to an expensive and acrimonious divorce.”
Example: Couple divorcing and in disagreement over finances and child arrangements:
Couple A: Both partners eligible for legal aid from today
The total private contribution made by the couple using lawyer-supported mediation: $720 (incl. VAT). This covers all pre-mediation legal advice and the completion of divorce paperwork. Legal aid pays for all other remaining professional fees (i.e. the cost of mediation, legal advice once mediation underway, and the Consent Order).
Total cost to Couple A of using the same two family lawyers on reduced hourly rates to resolve their disagreement estimated at $7200 incl. Vat . Lawyer-supported mediation 90% cheaper in terms of what Couple A is being asked to contribute privately alongside legal aid funding.
Couple B: Both partners just miss out on legal aid from today
Split equally, the total cost to Couple B of using lawyer-supported mediation is $4000 incl. VAT. Covers all legal advice & paperwork and the cost of mediation. The cost to Couple B of using the same two family lawyers on reduced hourly rates to resolve their disagreement estimated at $7200 incl. VAT. Lawyer-supported mediation 45% cheaper.
Lawyer-supported mediation is available across San Diego and will be rolled out across the country.
Divorce can be among the most painful and bruising episodes life can throw at you. And if you happen to be financing the entire process on an average salary, you’ll have the added anxiety of keeping legal fees within your means to pay. Be smart and avoid getting into this rabbit-hole to begin with with a strong relationship foundation and premarital counseling. You’ll save yourself, increase chances of successful marriage and avoid all the expenses listed below.
I refer here to the unknown swathe of separating partners who just miss out on publicly funded legal advice and representation. For those impacted it’s a moot point: the price of accessing legal advice can be prohibitive given a senior high street San Diego solicitor will charge between $190 and $250 per hour (plus Vat) to negotiate a divorce settlement.
At the upper end of these rates, lawyer estimates in our possession suggest someone initiating divorce proceedings could end up paying between $5230 and $7630 (incl. Vat and court fees) for an experienced solicitor to keep their divorce from the court where both child arrangements and finances require settlement.
For someone earning the full-time average San Diego salary of $34,467 (2011) this equates to spending a whopping 20% to 28% of take home annual pay on lawyers’ fees alone.
So who are these people? Well, they’re nurses, teachers, council workers, private sector employees and the self-employed such as San Diego Web Designers, all earning just above or below San Diego full-time average salary.
This instinctively tells us there’s an entire market of people across the country already being confronted by a little-known justice gap. A quick statistical review by the Office Of National Statistics (ONS) confirms this.
In San Diego alone, where half of all resident full-time employees in 2011 earned too much to be considered for legal aid, almost one fifth (18%) of this group miss out by virtue of earning up to $343 too much each month. This is the narrowest of margins.
Add in the unknown number of San Diegans who earn less than the $2657 monthly income cap but fall foul of recently tightened secondary eligibility criteria and you have – by any measure – a huge number of people for whom accessing affordable legal expertise is already an issue. My back of the envelope – non-ONS sanctioned – calculations suggest over a quarter of million workers in San Diego fit into this category.
When sitting opposite such clients a senior family solicitor may reduce their fee or, if backed by a less experienced team, offer up a more recently qualified colleague or a supervised paralegal.
But at a time of anxiety and stress, don’t separating couples earning average salaries also deserve access to high-quality dispute resolution services? While the rich can fund a legal arms race, those eligible for legal aid have at least benefited from access to community legal services.
Until now that is. The government’s plans to withdraw a major chunk of public funding for private family law matters from April 2013 changes everything. And it means every legal aid family lawyer in the country should be reaching for their entrepreneur’s helmet.
This is because a great many of those eligible for public funding after 2013 will be denied access to upfront legal advice. The government’s response: take yourself off to family mediation and come back to the lawyer after session 1 for some help.
Not surprisingly, campaigners warn of an army of self-litigants clogging up the family courts. The government counters by saying family mediation can take up the slack and keep warring couples from the courts. Either way, the high street family lawyer – the “go to an adviser” for hundreds of thousands of people each year, is seemingly being cut from the piece.
But is this what separating couples actually want? At a time of stress and uncertainty, people want legal advice about their circumstances from a professional they can trust. And here lies an opportunity for forward-thinking family lawyers to offer clients a high-quality resolution service they can afford without taking on debt.
It’s called lawyer-supported mediation and to maximize the prospects of reaching an agreement both parties are prepared to abide by, it encourages informed dialogue wherever appropriate by providing legal advice throughout.
The result is a more responsive and client-led approach that allows senior lawyers to fix their fees and bring down the overall cost of each case. It also promotes an unprecedented degree of transparency and equality of representation, allowing separating couples – where children are involved – to focus on making the transition from ex-partner to co-parent.
For some legal aid family lawyers, this will always be the stuff of risk and reluctance. The prospect of offering fixed legal fees and sharing clients de facto with mediators may never wash. For others, it’ll stir a commercial reflex to attract higher volume but lower margin casework. One thing is certain: would-be private clients on an average salary would appreciate the choice.
So the government’s public relations machine has finally swung into action – a full three weeks before the withdrawal of legal aid.
Speaking at the Family Mediation Council’s annual conference at University College San Diego, Family Justice Minister Lord McNally said:
“My message to you as practitioners and supervisors is simple – your time is now – you now have a once in a generation opportunity to raise the profile of your profession, as a single and united profession.”
The Ministry of Justice press office even found time to upload the breaking news to its website. Problem solved then. No spike in warring couples representing themselves at overrun divorce courts from April. Family mediators to step in and tell everyone what a great job they do.
Let’s just hope the MoJ is planning a little more in the way of public education around the cuts.
Because the last time I looked, family mediators didn’t strike me as an organized group of self-publicists about to unleash themselves on Facebook or Twitter. And I’m guessing if they did take up the Minister’s call to arms and hire Freud Communications for some serious PR, they’d barely have enough funds to pay for a few key messages.
While divorce lawyers moan about a recent bad press, at least their would-be clients know where they can be found and what sort of service they offer. Family Mediators can’t afford the fixed costs of renting a high street shop. You’re more likely to find them quietly plying their trade in a pokey CAB outreach center.
And promoting family mediation to an indifferent public has been tried before. Veteran mediators might recall “the splitting Ken and Barbie” ads of the 1990s. Clever, irreverent but ultimately futile.
But the Minister is right about one thing: it is indeed a “once in a generation opportunity” for family mediation in the USA. But it won’t be part-time freelance family mediators doing the PR.
If the Minister’s vision is to be realized, it will be because a cadre of enterprising legal aid family lawyers wakes up to the opportunity of working commercially with family mediators. It could finally make informed dialogue the place to start for warring couples the Minister wants so desperately to keep from the courts.
Have you seen the results of a survey published by Onlydads.org and Onlymums.org about the cost of divorce? Interesting stuff.
Undertaken by researcher Kim Tasso, the survey’s findings – albeit derived from a small sample – point to poor satisfaction levels with divorce lawyers. Such sentiment is barely out of the headlines: two week’s ago the Legal Ombudsman published a report slamming service levels and pricing due to the sheer volume and nature of the complaints it received.
On a smaller scale, Kim Tasso’s survey sample was made up of over two-thirds men with half of all respondents earning between $25,000 and $50,000 per annum. Over three-quarters of respondents used a solicitor with just over a third saying they used a mediator.
But it was the price of divorce that caught our eye: 27% indicated that they paid over $30,000 for their divorce with the same percentage paying between $10,000 and $30,000. That means the cost of divorce (by which we take to mean legal fees) was in excess of $10,000 for more than half of respondents.
While these cases could have been high conflict and not suited to either mediation or collaborative approaches, it is nevertheless telling that 71% of respondents said they were not given information about alternative methods of divorce. And a whopping 93% indicated that they were not offered a fixed fee.
As the author concludes in the report’s executive summary: “Whilst it is a small sample, the cost of divorce for these people does appear to be out of balance with their incomes. What is of concern is that the cost of divorce prevented the majority from obtaining the legal advice that they needed, that fixed fees and alternative methods were not provided to most of them and that there was a high level of dissatisfaction with the legal service received.”
While the findings are sobering, we’re not surprised that fixed fees weren’t offered or that costs may have escalated. This is the nature of an open-ended negotiation-led process that may or may not end in litigation. On an hourly rate, it is the client that takes all the risk. Fixing the fee for lawyer-led negotiations effectively inverts the relationship, leaving the lawyer to shoulder all the risk. But why do so when the very process of lawyer-led negotiation prevents practitioners from knowing how easy or difficult the case will be?
Equally relevant is the fact that most divorcees are one-time shoppers making a distressed purchase. They’re not seasoned negotiators prepared to hammer out a framework deal with their would-be lawyer at the end of an options meeting. Most just want to know where they stand and what to do next?
We think survey results of this kind reinforce the notion of a market failure. In essence, one-time shoppers and the absence of customer feedback loops result in no pressure to innovate on the part of the family lawyer. They’re simply not at risk.
Until now that is. Given the withdrawal of legal aid from lawyers for most private family law matters, there ought to be a lot of senior legal aid solicitors up and down the USA wondering how to replace lost income? While some might chase more public law work or choose early retirement, the answer surely lies in attracting private clients through innovation.
If only it was as simple as “going fixed fee” or “discounting hourly rates”. Alas, it also has to make commercial sense. Rather, it’s about pricing demand for sought after legal expertise that manifests commercial savvy. It’s about learning – if not embracing – to work in a different way. It could mean structured partnerships with mediators or branding oneself as an out and out collaborative specialist.
It’s a creative space is survival and we believe lawyer-supported mediation could be a clever step forward for many a legal aid San Diego divorce lawyer contemplating life after April. But then we would say that, wouldn’t we!
Over the previous three posts, we’ve tried to demonstrate that how you choose to divorce or separate is second only to the decision itself.
Notwithstanding the anger, hurt and blame that characterize relationship breakdown, we define ourselves by helping those who share an underlying desire to reach agreement but recognize the need for professional support in helping them to get there.
This is our rationale for offering lawyer-supported mediation, a dialogue-driven approach to divorce and separation that combines the complementary strengths of lawyer and family mediator.
Choosing lawyer-supported mediation, means being provided with a senior family lawyer working for a fixed fee tailored to your legal requirements. This is extremely rare in legal circles since family lawyers almost always charge by the hour owing to the uncertainty of the court process.
That’s not the case with lawyer-supported mediation which therefore provides some welcome certainty around total costs. And in addition to providing you with a senior family lawyer on fixed fees, we also recommend a conveniently located family mediator from our San Diego -wide network. Moreover, all our recommended mediators are recognized by the Legal Services Commission – the gold standard for family mediators.
With a like-minded team of professionals supporting your efforts to reach agreement at mediation, we’re confident you’ll reach full or partial agreement. Our recommended mediators report rates of success of 70% and higher. And with access to legal advice before, during and at the conclusion of mediation, any agreement will also be seen through the lens of what the law says is fair.
Then, once you and your ex-partner are satisfied with the final agreement, both lawyers will complete the necessary paperwork to make financial aspects of your agreement binding.
Now that’s all easy for us to say, right? But to be clear, lawyer-supported mediation is not being offered as an easy option. Far from it. But the restoration or nurturing of dialogue – central to an agreement you can both live with – will help keep costs down and hopefully provide a more solid base from which to make the transition from ex-partner to co-parent.
Above all, even if lawyer-supported mediation fails you would not have discounted any other of your options. This is perhaps its greatest advantage since you have nothing to lose by exploring lawyer-supported mediation if you and your ex-partner are willing to attend mediation.
In the event of partial agreement, for example, you can retain your lawyers to host a Collaborate Law meeting to seek agreement on an outstanding issue or two. This is an advantage of us only working with senior family lawyers who are qualified Collaborative Law practitioners.
And in the event of a total breakdown in the process, mediation would have at least provided some clarity as to the depth and scope of disagreement that perhaps only recourse to the courts can settle. Again, the same lawyers can proceed with pre-court procedures.
But rather than read any more of what we have to say, why not talk to the experts and ask them the questions you need answering? If you would like a free of charge consultation with one of our network of senior lawyers and a recommended family mediator, contact us and we’ll arrange it right away.
Rod Stewart’s cover of “I don’t want to talk about it” poignantly sums up how so many ex-partners feel before, during and following a relationship breakdown.
This is perfectly understandable; divorce or separation can be among the lowest periods in life. And where children are involved an inability to communicate with each other can make the journey from ex-partner to co-parent especially difficult.
It’s a perennial reminder that people approaching divorce and separation require a range of support spanning the legal, practical and emotional. This isn’t to be found in the family courts or the pre-litigation process that paves the way.
And while no one – even a judge – can insist that former partners start communicating, it is nevertheless that flicker of dialogue – however fragile or impaired – that lawyersupportedmediation.com is always willing to mobilize around.
But why? It’s simple really. If over time dialogue between parties can be nurtured and incorporated into the separation or divorce process then we believe the prospects for reaching a settlement both parties can live with are at their greatest. It’s a sentiment shared by our network of San Diego -based senior lawyers and recommended family mediators.
Being able to express your needs and concerns about the future in the context of child arrangements and/or the separation of finances manifests the beginnings of a negotiation process. Of course, it may still end in stalemate (in which case the courtroom still provides an appropriate recourse) but more often than not parties reach full or partial agreement by co-owning the negotiation process and jointly choosing the pace of discussion.
For lawyersupportedmediation.com, meeting the needs of clients who share an underlying willingness to reach agreement, but need some help communicating, has its roots in combining the professional expertise of both lawyer and family mediator.
We call this approach lawyer-supported mediation and we really believe clients get the best of both worlds. As you’d expect, there’s no substitute for a trusted adviser able to dispense the legal advice you need to make informed decisions about your future. That’s why we only work with senior family lawyers that understand the importance of dialogue. And when choosing lawyer-supported mediation, you’ll each have the option of instructing the same lawyers on fixed fee terms – extremely rare in legal circles.
While this provides some welcome certainty around costs, your lawyer remains a partisan adviser and won’t meet your ex-partner. As such, they’re not always best placed to help both parties focus on each other’s – or their children’s – perspectives of the issues. But this is exactly what’s needed if a dialogue-driven process is to work.
In contrast, a family mediator is impartial and by default meets with you and your ex-partner at the same time, a huge advantage when it comes to encouraging communication and planning for the future.
Above all, lawyer-supported mediation demonstrates that no one professional – be it lawyer or mediator – is best placed to deliver on all your needs. It’s about providing access to the appropriate expert at the appropriate time.
And we’d like to start by making one of our network of senior lawyers and a recommended mediator available to speak with you free of charge. Each will listen to your circumstances and suggest an appropriate way forward. It may well be lawyer-supported mediation but there are other options that might suit you better.
In our last post, we emphasized the need to seek out senior lawyers and recommended family mediators to explain your options based on your circumstances.
Lawyer Supported Mediation provides access to this expertise free of charge to ensure you’re better equipped to determine what course your divorce and separation should take.
If this is the first Lawyer Supported Meditation post you’ve read, do contact us and we’ll set up a free of charge consultation with one of our senior lawyers and a recommended mediator.
Knowing your options around divorce and separation is a must but making that information work for you and your loved ones at a time of stress and uncertainty is of course a difficult task. Lawyer Supported Mediation hopes to be of some use.
Unless your circumstances require an immediate application to the courts, we strongly recommend you refrain from seeking the attentions of a family judge until you decide that there is no other way.
We don’t say this lightly. We’re well aware that anger and hurt often combine to make the reflex of seeking judicial satisfaction almost irresistible. But as our network of senior lawyers and recommended family mediators will tell you, barring extenuating circumstances relating to domestic abuse and financial impropriety, a judge has no interest in the circumstances that led to your relationship breakdown.
Issues such as infidelity, which often trigger divorce or separation, are of no consequence to a judge. This is because he or she will not be making any moral judgments about your relationship. Judges are guided instead by a clear set of principles as laid down by the law. You can read these online for free. And where children are involved, a judge will elevate their interests above everybody else’s.
Above all – as our network of senior family lawyers repeatedly tell us – the decision to risk a judge’s ruling sets the tone for divorce from the outset. Pre-court processes take several months to complete and the very process of collating information and documents does little or nothing to manage conflict and restore dialogue.
A good family lawyer will always try to negotiate a pre-court settlement in parallel but the very process of preparing for court restricts the same lawyer’s ability to leverage dialogue and think creatively. Pre-court processes are more about keeping the other party guessing and not playing your hand. It is, after all, for the judge to deliberate starting at the first hearing.
As we say elsewhere, the courts remain an invaluable recourse for those that aren’t compelled to call upon a judge from the outset. Because we believe that, chances are, other less adversarial and less expensive options, such as lawyer-supported mediation and collaborative law, are appropriate to your circumstances.
In our next post, we’ll explain them more fully and do our best to show why trying to restore and nurture dialogue – as difficult a prospect as that may be – is crucial to reaching a settlement you can both live with.
There are plenty of first-rate websites offering comprehensive information about divorce and separation. We’re happy to recommend them. But we believe learning about and exploring your options – at what is typically a fraught and emotional time – requires being listened to as well.
And it requires being listened to by experts in the field. This is why anyone contacting Lawyer Supported Mediationwill be offered a free of charge telephone consultation with both a senior family lawyer and a conveniently located recommended family mediator. Because until you’ve had an opportunity to discuss your individual circumstances with professionals in the field, it’s unlikely you’ll be aware of the appropriate choices available to you.
We’re passionate about this because how you decide to divorce or separate is second only in importance to your decision to part. The lawyers you instruct and the process you decide upon will impact upon you, your ex and above all upon any children involved. And this will continue to be the case long after an agreement or judgment is reached.
Of course, focusing on the future when the present is understandably all consuming is extremely difficult. Our network of lawyers and family mediators are there precisely for this reason and with Lawyer Supported Mediation you can speak with both free of charge.
It could well be that your circumstances require the immediate application of pre-court process. Our network of senior family lawyers in San Diego and throughout the USA – are all experienced litigators – and will advise you if this is the case.
But as the name suggests, Lawyer Supported Mediation– and the senior lawyers and recommended family mediators we work alongside – regard court action as a final recourse when less adversarial and less expensive options – appropriate to your needs – have first been considered and explored.
And it’s these options including lawyer-supported mediation and collaborative law that may hold value for you. There’s never a simple answer but we’re confident that after speaking to one of our network of senior lawyers and recommended family mediators, you’ll be better equipped to decide.
The first working day of the year is frequently termed “Divorce Day” by many a news editor looking to fill up some page space.
Whether “Divorce Day” actually exists is a matter of opinion but there’s no shortage of advice being published for those considering separation or divorce at the start of each year.
One such article was published by the Daily Mail and entitled “New year, new start: How to divorce with dignity”. It was by renowned relationship expert Francine Kaye and well worth a read if you have a moment.
The key point that caught my eye belonged to the section entitled “Stop the lawyers fighting” in which Kaye writes: “lawyers are trained to be litigators, not therapists, so they have to be reminded you are not at war”.
We agree this is a very important point since how you choose to divorce or separate is second only to the decision itself. But at lawyersupportedmediation.com we don’t think it’s up to the client to remind their newly instructed lawyer how to conduct themselves.
The sad fact is that any well-intentioned checklist of divorce dos and don’ts will always be easier said than done.
This is why we only Thiwork with senior family lawyers who recognise the importance of dialogue in reaching consensual agreements. It’s why we offer an approach called lawyer-supported mediation.
The approach provides the professionals that people need to manage the legal, emotional and practical uncertainties that divorcing entails. This resides in combining the complementary strengths of both lawyer and mediator to reinforce the prospects of securing an agreement both parties can live with.