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Dispute Resolution with Collaborative Law

I was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2005. I started handling family law matters in 2007. At the time, I was an associate handling commercial matters when the family law associate at the firm went out on maternity leave. I offered to help out temporarily while she was gone — and I loved it.  I continued with family law as my primary focus from then on. Until 2016, I was very much on the same page as the rest of the world — I hadn’t heard of collaborative law yet and thought that litigation was the only way. At that time, I was a practicing attorney for a firm I started, Johnson & Ritchey P.A. in Boca Raton, Florida. Prior to that, my sister, Caroline Johnson, and I were working together at a firm when she was pregnant with her third child and I was pregnant with my second. We knew we wanted to focus on our families while still continuing our work helping families during difficult transitions.  We needed flexibility so in 2014 we went out on our own and created Johnson & Ritchey, P.A. 

In 2016 I was working with a psychologist as an expert on one of my cases when I learned about collaborative law from her. After our first conversation, I knew it was going to be the way we handle family law matters in the future and how I wanted to practice from then on. After our experience in this field and seeing the ways that a traumatic event like divorce can become even worse depending on who is involved, I knew there had to be another way to approach legal conflicts. 

Once we heard about collaborative law, we knew we wanted to be part of the movement and help spread the word by focusing a practice on that type of law specifically. We met Joel Feldman, our current partner at the firm, years ago when we were opposing counsel on cases. We were also in the same collaborative practice group. Joel approached us about merging and it was a no-brainer. Joel is very like-minded in the sense that he wants what is best for his own family and his clients’ families as well.

Collaborative law is the best way for families to navigate tough transitions and here is why. 

First, the collaborative law process starts with someone in a dispute looking for an attorney like myself, or my sister and founding partner of Florida Collaborative Law Group, Caroline, to represent them in a legal proceeding. We then work with the individual to help them determine their goals and identify their interests for a realistic final resolution. 

We then recommend that the other party (this could be the spouse in a divorce matter, estranged business partner in a business dispute, or other family member in a probate matter, etc.) meet with a collaboratively trained attorney.  Once the other party has retained a collaborative attorney, we call in the help of a neutral settlement facilitator, who is a mental health professional, and a neutral financial expert. These two neutral professionals are vital to the team.  They provide unbiased expert opinions to support both parties involved which is of tremendous value to them.   

The settlement facilitator helps to build up co-parenting skills, if children are involved, and prepare parenting plans that would be in the best interest of the child.   The settlement facilitator also helps build up communication skills during the process and to ensure it moves as smoothly and efficiently as possible.  This allows the  team to assist the parties in making decisions and taking control of the process,  rather than a judge who would know very little about their family and circumstances, and meet them only a handful of times. Although the collaborative professionals do not provide therapy, the process can be very therapeutic. 

Through the assistance of a neutral financial expert, the parties are able to work on scenarios for resolution of their finances with a mind towards fairness and equity.  The parties must be transparent.  No one can engage in any ‘“hide the ball” tactics.  This means that all finances relating to the marriage and to both parties are brought to the forefront of the discussion. The financial expert is able to analyze and organize the information and provide options that will help to serve both parties. 

We focus on interests and what is equitable. We try to help build the parties up during the process. A way we also prioritize these values is through negotiations taking place outside of the courtroom. This means that our collaborative team meets outside of a court of law, and therefore meetings are not subject to public record. If you know someone that has been divorced you are able to look up their record and find private details about their finances, personal issues, and more. Collaborative law is completely confidential and that confidentiality is protected by statute.

Mediation is also a very important alternative dispute resolution process that can be utilized during the collaborative process.  When a collaborative matter breaks down and terminates, the parties resort to litigation as their default. Because of the transparency of the process, the parties need to retain new attorneys and the work product cannot be used (absent an agreement to allow the work product to be used in litigation). There is a huge consequence to the parties if the collaborative process breaks down.  That is why over 85% of the cases fully resolve during the process, the disqualification provision keeps everyone vested.  We utilize mediation during the process if we are reaching an impasse during the team meetings.  We also almost always use it as the last option prior to termination, to try and keep the parties in the process. It is most successful when the mediator is also trained in collaborative law. We provide advanced training about mediation in the collaborative process, as it is quite different than when utilized during litigation. 

Through collaborative mediation, we are able to find conflict resolution through putting resentment behind us. Any time there might be value in preserving a relationship such as probate matters between families and business disputes among partners who may want to stay in business together, collaborative law is the dignified approach to a generations-old cliche. 


Christen Ritchey

Christen Ritchey is one of the founding partners of Johnson, Ritchey & Feldman, P.A. and Florida Collaborative Law Group in Boca Raton where she focuses her practice on family law matters. Christen is an Accredited Collaborative Professional. She is Co-Chair of the outreach committee for the Florida Academy of Collaborative… MORE >

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