After law school, I spent my first six years as an attorney in Washington, DC focusing on family law litigation. I was taught to listen to my client’s story, then advocate his/her position as zealously as possible. While my clients were always happy with their “wins” there were often times were I was left wondering whether in fact the court had made the best decision for the family as a whole.
In 2005, after my own marriage ended in divorce, I decided to pursue a complete transformation in my legal training. I became trained in mediation and Collaborative Law. I read various books and attended numerous trainings on psychology. Learning how depression and other mental health issues can impact clients going through a traumatic experience like divorce helped me understand that my role needed to be more of a counselor, not just an advocate. Most importantly, it became clear to me that to truly help people resolve their differences, I needed to hear both parties version of events, as well as their goals and concerns. True understanding can only happen when we listen to each person’s story, and a successful resolution is when we select the best option for the family as a whole, not just one individual.
In the last 5 years, applying the Collaborative approach not just in my professional life, but also in my personal life, I learned to methodically think about goals and interest; then identify the issues to be addressed; gather all the relevant information necessary; generate options for a solution to each issue; then pick the one most favorable to everyone involved. Eventually, using this technique, I found the courage to deal with something I had kept secret for most of my life: the desire to find my father, and through him, my half brother.
Meeting my father after all these years without any contact was a bit daunting, but I knew I had to face this part of my past if I was ever going to move forward with my own life. I had to find it in my heart to forgive him, and in order to do that, I needed to hear his side of the story and try to understand him, without passing any judgments.
When I first laid eyes on him in February 2011, it was surreal– it was like looking in a mirror, at a much older and much more masculine version of me. He immediately recognized me and greeted me with a hug and kiss. We ordered some food and drinks at The Source, and then the first thing he did was start my apologizing for what happened 20 years ago. Apologies are so rare these days, but I often tll my clients it can go a long way in the healing process, and now I got to experience it first-hand.
My whole life, I wanted to understand what happened between my parents. Finally, by using the Collaborative approach, I not only have answers to so many questions, but I have found the opportunity to provide my son with a complete family, something I never had and always longed for in my own life. Of course there is tremendous sadness in the years lost, and the fact that we are all spread across two continents, but as I often tell my clients, we need to focus on the bright possibilities ahead and let go of the disappointment from our past losses.
There is a tremendous amount of irony in my life, but the most painful realization is the fact that if I had not gotten divorced, I may never have changed my approach with my clients in my professional life. Without having personally suffered the emotional loss of a family as a result of my own divorce, I might never have truly grasped the internal struggle my clients are experiencing while desperately try to cope with their grief as they make major life decisions. Experiencing this first hand is what led me to study alternatives to litigation, and then I began to apply the techniques I learned in my personal life. Without these skills, I might never have found my true family and a tremendous sense of inner peace that I have craved my entire life.
The journey to find my family was not easy, but maybe it was necessary to prove my point that families are generally far better off trying to resolve their differences outside of court. I am living proof that the courts make mistakes, and as a result of some rather harsh, egregious court decisions, my brother and I both lived for years without a father. Now, as I try my best to piece back together a family torn apart for years by the very judicial system I was taught to serve, I am glad I can offer others an alternative– the Collaborative approach. A dignified, respectful and completely private way to address family issues outside of any court, thereby maximizing the chances for everyone to find love, happiness and peace.