I recently attended a family law seminar. Many good ideas were exchanged and useful information was shared by a panel of very talented lawyers and judges. However, one recurring theme struck me – just how expensive divorces can be and how nobody really takes the time to address the cost for everyday folks.
One presentation was a mock mediation. Though very well done, the only fact pattern presented involved above average income clients. In the scenario, the parties were a college professor and a real estate agent who both had 6-figure salaries, two houses, $765,000 in retirement savings, $20,000 in cash savings and only $5,000 in credit card debt. A cost of $30,000 for one side to prepare for and try the case was suggested without anyone involved blinking an eye. I thought about the majority of the folks I help - they don’t fit that profile. And I bet most of the lawyers there didn’t have clients that fit that mold either.
There was a panel discussing “unusual issues” in divorce cases. They focused on issues for high asset divorces. One discussion was on the use of post-nuptial agreements for the “society pages” set. I found one discussion disturbing - a suggestion that a bill would be proposed next year to allow wealthy people to hire “private judges” to handle their cases as if they were elected sitting trial judges. The cases would have all rights of appeal as any other divorce case, but people who could afford to hire a retired judge to handle their case would not have to wait with everyone else in the backlog of cases waiting for trial. One speaker justified the cost by saying, “We can pay the judges mediator rates since people with money have been using mediators for years anyway.”
I was left shaking my head – first at a proposal for the wealthy to bypass elected judges and hand pick who would handle their cases while the average person is stuck in the bog of court backlogs – quick justice for the highest bidder. Second at the idea (misconception is a better word) that only people “with money” can mediate their cases. It is no wonder the myth that mediation is an expensive undertaking is so pervasive. Mediation is a cost saving option for everyone – not just the “society pages” set. There were lawyers from all over the state at this seminar. Many came from smaller rural counties. The takeaway message – your middle class clients are stuck waiting for a trial, so don’t even bother looking at alternatives.
Collaborative law was also discussed. This is a concept I wholeheartedly support. But again, there seems to be a stigma that it is only an option for people with above average financial means. I am excited to see the collaborative community taking shape in Alabama and am encouraged by the people I see taking a lead in this area. They will have my full support. Any opportunity for people to work together to resolve divorces is worthwhile. I hope the collaborative model proves to be more widely available than other options I heard discussed.
Mediation is available for anyone who wants to save money, preserve dignity and respect, and quickly and confidentially resolve their dispute – be it a divorce, business dispute, etc. It is not just a high dollar option. I hope that the folks who plan these seminars in the future will consider presenting ways to meet the financial challenges faced by everyday people going through a divorce. I will do my part to keep putting the message out there.