At exactly 5:31 PM yesterday, I reached a milestone in my career. Over the last decade or so, one of my activities has been to instruct lawyers, mental health professionals, and financial professionals in negotiation, dispute resolution and facilitation skills, and Collaborative Practice. I have conducted a variety of trainings, workshops, and classes. Each year since 2009, I have annually conducted Introductory Collaborative Divorce trainings as a primary trainer and curriculum developer. Yesterday, I completed my 20th such training—which means it’s the first one after my years as a “teenager trainer” for that curriculum. For both students and instructors, each of these trainings is an intensive immersion that lasts two long days, all designed to introduce professionals to what’s necessary to embark on the voyage to work as a professional in the Collaborative Law process.
What I love most about the Introductory training is the shift I see in my students over two days. It’s visible in their faces, their body language, their energy. They spring to life, their faces fill with excitement. There are actually two major shifts. The first happens overnight between the first and second day. Day 1 of our curriculum includes rigorous discussions about divorce and negotiation; this deep dive can cause cognitive dissonance as students work to reconcile inconsistencies in their own thinking that these discussions tend to upend. The next morning, after students process overnight, there is a noticeable shift of energy. By the end of the second day, most students become energized as the pieces fall into place.
Many lawyers who take our training have spent years working in the adversarial system and can be desensitized to the resulting impacts. Many lawyers experience dissatisfaction, perhaps a deadening of their soul, or burn out in their work. Some start to realize that many of their clients are stuck in power struggles; for those clients an adversarial process may have provided a decision, but it often did not provide a solution. For these lawyers, this training can revitalize their practice by opening a door to something they did not even know existed: the possibility to be able to help the majority of their clients successfully reconstitute families in a healthy way. Most lawyers genuinely want to help their clients; they are hamstrung by the system in which they are trained; a system that is designed to be adversarial and therefore also to create or entrench adversaries.
Two long days of training may seem to be a lot. To me, this is barely enough to dive deep where it counts and to highlight a few of the skills needed to become an effective Collaborative professional. Lawyers are trained for an adversarial system. Most lawyers lack training in how to work effectively with conflict using non-adversarial means. We are not taught how to make agreements durable, how to help families transition to a post-divorce future in a healthy way, or how to work effectively with the maelstrom of emotions and dynamics that are normal in every divorce. We have not learned how to educate and empower clients so they no longer feel victimized and can instead make their own wise decisions and step powerfully into the next phase of their lives. These skills, among others, are needed to successfully transition into a skilled Collaborative professional who can offer clients the possibility of the healthy outcome they so desire, and to help steer those clients away from the quicksand that will pull them into power struggles and court battles. Teaching awareness, let alone these skills and creating the framework for using them, can only be started in two days.
As we do after every training, my training partner Anne Lucas and I once debriefed yesterday evening after Day 2, and started to identify portions of our curriculum to update and improve. We make changes to the curriculum every single time. Over the years, both our curriculum and teaching methods have changed markedly, and we think they continue to improve. Our hope is that by continuing to do better for our students, we can help them do better for their clients; in turn, we hope that will do good for their families and communities.
It’s nice to be able to say I’m still “in my 20s” as a Introductory Collaborative Divorce trainer, and that I continue to learn in that role. So long as it remains a privilege and joy to see the shift in my students’ faces at the end of Day 2, I hope to continue to do this work.