Brigitte Schmidt Bell started her law firm, one of the only fully Collaborative Law firms in the Chicago area, after training as a mediator and realizing how effective it could be to have people work out their own issues.
“I started wanting to apply this to divorce law, because it made more sense to me than a judge deciding the fate of families,” she says.
That was almost 15 years ago, and since then, Collaborative Law, which helps families work together through a divorce or other issues, has become more popular.
“Both parties sign an agreement that they will stay at the table and work together to solve problems related to family divorce, prenup, or a variety of things,” Bell says. “We all work together to figure out solutions rather than ask a judge to make the decision.”
Additional professionals are brought in, like financial advisors, forensic accountants, child specialists, and appraisers, many of whom are trained in the Collaborative process. These professionals are often consulted in traditional divorce too, but in this case they work with both sides, instead of each consulting their own.
“You’re then working with people that everyone can trust,” Bell says.
Collaborative divorce works well for families who want privacy. It keeps people out of court, and there’s nothing in the public record until there’s an agreed upon solution. It also helps people work at their own pace.
“Once you’re in the legal system, the court sets deadlines, but families don’t work that way,” Bell says. “Children get sick, or one parent works in another state, for example. Since we don’t file anything in court until we’re done, we’re able to let clients work in a way that makes sense for them.
Some of her clients go through the process quickly, while some do a lot of work then take a break. They have control over how they want to handle the process.
Bell notes her clients are also much more participatory in the legal elements, because they’re actually present for discussions. The lawyers are there to educate and support but the clients are the ones making decisions.
Collaborative Law has been in existence for about 15 years, though Bell has been doing a form of it for much longer. When she started practicing 35 years ago, she worked in mediation, which is very similar, except for the fact that mediators can’t get people through the legal system on the final day.
“Some people call Collaborative Law mediation on steroids because it uses the same skills,” Bell says.
Bell was one of the founders of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois, as well as the first co-president. She’s currently the co-chair of the training committee.
“I’m trying to put my energies into the thing I’m most passionate about. What makes Collaborative Law different are the skills we bring to the process, the fact that what we do is help people figure out what they really need and want, and how to articulate that.”
At Brigitte Schmidt Bell, P.C., the lawyers have been trained in Collaborative Law, and they’re all women. Bell says she thinks there’s a certain empathy she and her firm bring to the table.
“If you can help the client find their own voice, you ultimately help them much more than if you speak for them. That’s what we aim to do. I tell my clients they’re going to work harder in this process than if they had a judge decide, but they’re going to come out at the other end much more ready to step into their new life, because they participated in making it,” she says.