Divorce Mediators – Are They All the Same?
If you are searching for a divorce mediator in the Norfolk and Walpole, Massachusetts area, you may start to think divorce mediation is similar wherever you go. You may not realize how wrong that assumption is until you are already well into your mediation, and perhaps things have stalled or otherwise not progressing as you hoped. We mediators have our own styles and approaches of course, but other differences are even more important.
When wearing my divorce lawyer hat and working with a client mediating outside my firm, these differences are clear. As a side note, remember that not all divorce mediators are lawyers, so select your mediator carefully and make sure your mediator has the subject matter expertise to help you. Surprisingly, non-lawyer mediators claim to be experts in divorce and family law all the time on their websites. Because they are not attorneys and not governed by our strict standards of professional conduct, they can say almost anything.
Below are a couple of real examples that illustrate how mediation is different depending on where you mediate, with the hope that this information will help you make a good choice when hiring a mediator for your Massachusetts divorce.
Mistake #1 – Lack of Proper Attention to Financial Issues
I have noticed that many mediators shy away from getting involved in financial details. I was working with a client that participated in about five mediation sessions with another mediator. The mediator was also a lawyer, and drafted the Divorce Agreement. My client provided me with the agreement to review on her behalf, and I asked her for copies of her and her husband’s court financial statements. “The what?” she replied.
The problem here as you likely figured out, was that these people were about to sign a divorce agreement without first reviewing any financial info. File this under the “BIG MISTAKE” category. They did not any financial information and had not completed the required court financial statements, yet the mediator was telling them that the divorce agreement was ready to sign. The mediator did not even mention these important things to the clients.
- Solution: Financial information should be collected and reviewed earlier in the process. Piles of raw financial statements are overwhelming for many stressed-out divorcing couples, so ask your mediator if he or she uses divorce financial software, and what types of reports he or she will generate for you.
Structure and procedures for handling financial information during divorce mediation is critical, but you would not always know it. When a couple comes to divorce mediation, both parties are looking to get a fair agreement (hopefully) and work through the divorce process in a less stressful and more efficient manner. Sometimes one person may hesitate to use the divorce mediation process because the person is worried that he or she is not familiar with household finances, assets, debt, and other financial matters. Some of these people will end up hiring a divorce lawyer and are off to court for a more expensive and stressful process. These people will say that they “felt they needed someone on their side.”
This is understandable, but also avoidable. Although a mediator is neutral, a mediator can certainly educate clients about issues and present information in a helpful manner. At Next Phase Legal LLC, we collect detailed financial information from both parties and provide informative and clear financial reports to our clients. We take the time to educate our divorce mediation clients on the issues, and make sure that both sides are considering their future financial needs. How anyone can make reasonable choices during divorce without this information is a mystery, yet many mediators are very hands-off when it comes to financials.
Handing someone a blank court financial statement and saying “Here, fill this out” does not work very well. The required court financial forms are of limited value, do not capture all of the helpful information, and clients struggle to complete them accurately – even people with financial backgrounds.
Mistake #2 – The Tale of the Rudderless Ship
Another pattern I have detected is an overall lack of structure and direction with some mediators. I was working as outside counsel for a husband that was working with another mediator (my history with this client would have prevented me from serving in a neutral capacity). This client had income well into the six-figure range. He would consult with me before and after each mediation session. I would ask him what the agenda was for the next session and when was it scheduled. Interestingly, the mediator never brought up this information. The clients left the first couple of sessions without any idea when they would next meet, or what to prepare. My client eventually took the initiative to get another session scheduled at the end of each session, and to plan an agenda for the next session.
- Solution: Having a plan in place, including an agenda and a road map for mediation sessions can help keep people on track, and avoid wandering conversations. Knowing what information to prepare and to think about for the next session give clients the opportunity to make notes between sessions, jot down questions, and generally be more prepared.
The Benefits of Structure – Mediation at Next Phase Legal LLC
About six years ago, I designed fixed fee mediation packages and implemented them at my firm with much success. Although certainly not the first person to do this, I have tweaked these programs based upon my experience and client feedback. These mediation packages work very well for divorcing couples, including those with complicated situations and higher net-worth families. Other mediators may offer flat fee pricing, but these programs are usually low-budget plans and offer very limited services. We offer different packages depending on the needs of the clients, but if a mediator offers to do your entire divorce mediation, draft the agreement and all the forms for just a couple of thousand dollars, then be careful. You get what you pay for, and poorly drafted divorce agreements will likely be rejected by the court. Only divorce mediators that are licensed attorneys in MA can draft your divorce agreement and related court forms for you.
Couples achieve excellent results with the fixed fee packages. Almost every couple I work with (and I am including my extensive mediation experience at my previous firm) reaches a full agreement on all issues, and within the parameters of the mediation package selected. The couple knows what they are going to spend, and they have a timetable for how long it should take to complete the process. Although confident in my mediation skills, I think another key is the structure and design of our mediation plans.
Why do these divorce mediation packages just work?
- The clients know what to expect before starting the mediation process.
- Clients know they have a certain number of sessions to work with. This keeps people focused on what is important and moving forward, but it is not rushed. If people need more meetings, they can pay separately for them, but it is uncommon that our fixed-fee divorce mediation clients need additional services outside the flat-fee package.
- Structure helps offset the many emotions involved in the divorce process, and helps create productive conversations focused on problem solving, not accusations and reliving the past.
- Each session is mapped out as to what we will cover, providing intermediate goals for the mediation sessions.
- Our fixed-fee mediation packages are a good value.
Divorce and family mediation requires flexibility from everyone involved, but having a plan in place makes sense. Divorce mediation can work for you, too, and you will save a significant amount of money compared to litigation fees. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll end up with a better agreement that you helped create; translating to much less post-divorce conflict.
Note: Traditional hourly billing is available for those that prefer that route instead of a fixed-fee mediation package.