Blog | January 9, 2015

Learning from our Clients – The requirement for a Standard Participation Agreement

Marian Gage

by Marian Gage

As Collaborative practitioners we receive our most important feedback from the clients who retain us and choose this process.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to speak with a former Collaborative Practice client about his experience with the process. He was not my client and I will call him “John Smith” although that is not his real name. It was not a good experience. It was certainly not the experience that we, the professionals, anticipate when we promote the process to potential clients. What went wrong? What can we learn from Mr. Smith’s unfortunate experience?

Mr. Smith started out as all collaborative clients do. He chose a lawyer trained in Collaborative practice. He and his lawyer began communicating with his wife’s lawyer who also advertised herself as a trained Collaborative lawyer. But things quickly took a wrong turn when it came time to sign a Collaborative Participation Agreement.

“(My lawyer) and I were asked to sign a collaborative agreement that excluded any disqualification clause and demanded mandatory arbitration if we failed to come to an agreement in 6 months.”

The “disqualification clause” Mr. Smith refers to is the standard provision in the Collaborative Participation

Agreement that provides that if either party terminates the process and begins litigation both parties must “start from scratch” with new lawyers and the collaborative lawyers participating in the process may not transition to a litigation process with their clients. Among other reasons this is intended to be a disincentive to litigation.

Those of us familiar with the practice know that this is not only odd but in direct contrast with a process that has the goal of encouraging dialogue and negotiation without the threat of litigation looming in the background.

Mr. Smith agreed that requiring all clients and lawyers to sign a standard participation agreement would provide clarity about the process up front. In his words, “I was blindsided by the process and would have known more quickly what I was up against if this was the standard practice.”

Mr. Smith’s lawyer, a well-respected Collaborative family lawyer, attempted to continue negotiations in a “collaborative” manner.

According to Mr. Smith, “they (his wife and her Collaborative lawyer) were highly aggressive and combative and I was forced to move to a litigation lawyer…my lawyer had continuing difficulties with the other lawyer and we were very close to going to court. I finally signed an unequal agreement to cut my losses.”

This is not the way we profess to practice, however, there are lawyers who have taken the training that allows them to sell themselves as Collaborative family lawyers. If our clients find themselves in a process with such a lawyer they, like Mr. Smith, will likely have a miserable experience. This tarnishes the reputation of a process we are trying to promote as a better way to resolve family disputes.

As professionals working in this area we have no control over the lawyer our client’s spouse or former spouse chooses (nor should we) and we have to work with what we are given. If the other lawyer is not prepared to uphold the basic tenets we learn are so important to the process, sometimes the best we can do is explain this to our clients so that they do not walk away thinking that what they experienced was, in fact a Collaborative process.

For clients seeking out Collaborative family lawyers it is important to ask a potential lawyer how long he or she has practiced in the area, what training they have as a Collaborative practitioner, how many recent cases he or she has done where the parties signed a Collaborative Participation Agreement and what the practice means to him or her.

Collaborative practitioners are at odds as to how much regulation and oversight this practice area requires. I will not comment on that in this article. Mr. Smith’s case highlights the need for Collaborative lawyers to insist on a standard Participation Agreement that sets out a true Collaborative process.

By Marian Gage, B.J., LL.B, AccFM
Berry Gage
Family Law & Mediation
165 Cross Avenue, Site. 301
Oakville, ON
L6J 0A9
Tel: 905-338-7941

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