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Separating Together offers a different kind of divorce

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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The table in the conference room down the hall from Mark Springfield’s office is round.

Not oval. Not oblong with round edges. Completely round. “There’s no position of power,” said Springfield, taking a seat.

Next to the table is a large flat-screen monitor where attorneys and clients in four-way meetings can plug in their laptops and work together to develop a post-divorce financial plan.

Springfield’s practice of collaborative divorce sets him apart from the traditional adversarial-style attorney who practices family law.

He is part of what is believed to be the only practice group in the state solely devoted to collaborative divorce – a relatively new paradigm based on negotiation without the threat of litigation. In November, the group added five attorneys, doubling its size.

Springfield and the other attorneys have also developed an unusual practice model: They practice under the umbrella of Separating Together, a licensed nonprofit LLC. It’s not a firm, but a practice group, and its very existence was made possible by an ethics opinion of the N.C. State Bar nearly 10 years ago.

While most lawyers who work across the hall from each other wouldn’t each be representing one-half of a couple that is in the midst of a divorce, in the case of Separating Together, it’s OK.

In a 2002 ethics opinion that allowed the formation of Separating Together, the Bar found that two attorneys who are in the practice group could represent such clients “provided both lawyers determine that their professional judgment on behalf of their respective clients will not be impaired by their relationship to the other lawyer through the … organization, and both clients consent to the representation after consultation.”

Furthermore, the opinion said, it’s OK for a lawyer representing a client in a collaborative divorce process to contact the other spouse and propose the collaborative process, even recommending one of the attorneys in the practice group. This communication is not prohibited by ethics rules “provided there is full disclosure of the lawyer’s relationship to the … organization and the lawyer will receive no financial benefit” as a result of the other spouse’s employment of another lawyer in the group.

Eight of the attorneys also share office space – one receptionist and separate files. “We have to keep confidences just like in any office-sharing situation,” Springfield said.

Collaborative divorce starts with all parties signing an agreement that they commit to work to achieve a negotiated outcome and that no litigation will be commenced. It’s centered on interest-based rather than positional-based negotiation, Springfield said.

He is well aware of the stereotypes. “Oh, yeah, we sing ‘Kumbayah,'” he said.

But as in any contentious negotiation, “there are crucial conversations. The stakes are high, emotions are running high, and sometimes crucial conversations go badly. … Sometimes people storm out.”

Collaborative divorce is not for everyone. About 10 to 15 percent of potential clients who need more than simple services end up walking out the door. Springfield said the collaborative process can be more difficult when there are substance-abuse problems or untreated psychiatric issues. “In some cases it’s impossible to predict,” he said.

The attorneys who joined the group all had to agree to limit their practice to collaborative divorce. That means if they sign an agreement at the beginning of a case that they will not go to court; if any client decides to take the matter to court, the Separating Together attorney must withdraw.

“The big hurdle is: Are you willing to restrict your practice? We haven’t had people beating down the door,” Springfield said. “People go to law school to go to court. It’s a big decision to go to law school and not go to court.”

Tre Morgan, one of the attorneys who joined the practice in November, said he was committed to collaborative divorce but didn’t want to be in a solo practice. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy going out and working every day and not having colleagues around – people to bounce things off of,” he said.

Another advantage to being a member of the group is “there is obviously some branding involved. It’s beneficial for a lot of us to be associated with other attorneys who are very good at this.”

“There’s also a level of trust that comes with working closely with other people,” said James W. Hart, another attorney in Separating Together.

Springfield said that in some ways he was trying to “create a market” by forming the practice group. “It’s been slow and steady,” he said. “It became sustainable for me about three years ago.” When asked to define sustainable, he mentioned mortgage payments and groceries.

In some ways adding the new attorneys has “diluted the market,” Springfield said, but he believes that “over time the number of couples choosing collaborative divorce will continue to grow.”

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