“In the context of family law, people are best served when they are able to make their own decisions.” This is true whether it’s about a prenuptial agreement, a divorce, or other relationship problem.
That, Brigitte Schmidt Bell says, is the underlying philosophy of her family law practice, which is one of just a handful of law firms in Illinois that specializes in “Collaborative” law. Bell is a nationally recognized pioneer in both Collaborative Law and mediation. The two lawyers who work with Bell, Rita Ghose and Erin Purta, are also trained in Collaboration and mediation and active in those communities.
With traditional divorce litigation, the atmosphere in the courthouse and even in meetings is often combative, and clients spend time and money vilifying each other and battling over everything.
“Our Collaborative approach is a client-centered process and replaces combat with cooperation and vilification with respect,” Bell says. “We encourage and support clients as they work together to find solutions to their unique problems and issues. Every family is different, and helping clients be thoughtful about what works for them, not their neighbor or best friend or sibling or even the case they read about somewhere, is what we do.”
After graduating from Swarthmore College and University of Chicago Law School, Bell got her start working for Jenner & Block on the well-known antitrust case launched by MCI against AT&T in 1974. But she had gone into law to work with people and families, and hours and hours of silently pouring over legal documents and research in an office just wasn’t cutting it.
With a nod to her sister, a mediator with the Justice Department who had helped mediate the Boston school busing crisis in the mid-’70s, Bell trained as a mediator with the Center for Conflict Resolution and shifted into family law. For nearly 40 years, she’s used her skills as a mediator to help clients resolve their legal and relationship issues.
“If you look at family law, it really doesn’t give answers, it gives guidelines,” says Bell. “When considering a child’s best interests, for example, you’re asked to evaluate a child’s relationship with his or her siblings. But the law doesn’t say how to prioritize that factor or what weight to give it compared to the other 14 factors that are listed.”
She adds, “I believe that parents know what’s best for their children because they know them best, better than anyone in a black robe, who at best gets snippets of information about the children.”
The ideal outcome for Bell is that her clients come away with a parenting plan or contract that they file away and never have to refer to again because they have, in a sense, created it through their thoughtful discussions.
“The legal system is designed to make clients think the worst of each other,” Bell says, “but our Collaborative approach is designed for people to find the best in themselves.”
Recently, Bell’s firm has been focusing on prenuptials to demystify the process of these contracts, which are often contentious and negatively impact relationships before couples tie the knot. They are often one-sided, the product not of discussion but of an imbalance of resources; they often focus primarily on potential future divorce. Bell encourages couples to consider using the Collaborative process or mediation to reach such agreements and broaden their scope, since doing so will lead to a deeper discussion of important issues that impact how the marriage relationship itself is conducted and not just a plan for divorce.
Bell admits the process can be particularly challenging when there’s financial imbalance in the relationship, but that’s all the more reason for the two parties to be satisfied with the outcome if it’s based on thoughtful discussion.
“What people don’t realize is that sometimes a prenup can extend a divorce proceeding,” says Bell. People enter into it to set the financial parameters for a potential divorce, but often what happens is that first they spend a year litigating only the validity of the prenuptial.
“The key with all of our work is sitting down and taking the time to listen to our clients and understand what matters to them and what they need,” Bell says. “That’s how we help them through the tough times.”
Brigitte Schmidt Bell, PC is located at 161 North Clark Street, Suite 1600, in Chicago, and at 500 Davis Street, Suite 1006, in Evanston, 312-360-1124. brigittebell.com.