By Christopher M. Sprysenski
In 2015, I began my journey as a collaborative divorce lawyer. Having an already resolution-focused approach to my practice, the collaborative model just made sense. I’ve always said that “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Having a neutral mental health professional to help spouses develop their parenting plans and work through the emotions they are experiencing with their divorce, and a neutral financial professional to develop a statement of net worth based on collecting impartial data seemed like a divorce model where lawyers could finally use the right tools for the right job.
Venturing Out of the Litigation Kingdom: My 1st Collaborative Case
Image by Mukuko Studio (Unsplash)
I took my excellent collaborative training at my alma mater, Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida and, surprisingly, was able to start my first collaborative case almost immediately wherein I represented the wife. The lawyer representing the husband was a mentor of mine, and a well known and beloved attorney in the Central Florida community. Our neutral financial professional was also a mentor to me, who had taught me how to properly present a need and ability to pay analysis in Court as an expert witness in my first evidentiary hearing. Finally, our neutral mental health professional was well known in our community, and today, am honored to call her a consistent colleague and a friend.
I was excited and eager to utilize the “new-to-me” collaborative divorce process to hopefully help my client and her husband build options that would ultimately resolve their case. The case involved complex non-marital assets with transactions spanning over a period of years. Indeed, to understand the full picture, many documents would need to be analyzed.
Unfortunately, the process did not complete. Since that first case, I have been lucky to have had dozens of collaborative divorce cases conclude successfully. I attribute many of these successful outcomes to the lessons I learned from that first case, and those lessons have made me a much better collaborative divorce lawyer.
When I think of the primary lesson I learned, I immediately think of the movie Frozen. I will be honest; I have never seen this animated film. I know there are two princesses, and a snowman and a reindeer also might somehow be involved in the plot. But, like everyone else, it was almost impossible to avoid the song “Let It Go,” written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez back in 2013 when the movie was first released. While we all might not know all of the lyrics to this song, I’d bet you a dollar anyone could recite the chorus on command:
“Let it go, let it go!
Can’t hold it back anymore.
Let it go, let it go!
Turn away and slam the door.”
So how in the world does my first collaborative case have anything to do with princesses and snowmen?
As lawyers, we are trained starting in law school we must zealously advocate for our clients. But what does that mean? Traditional models of justice are largely based on rights-based theory. For example, that the lower earning spouse in a long-term marriage over 17 years has a “right” to permanent, periodic alimony. Or that if an asset was acquired by a spouse before their marriage and not commingled with other assets acquired during the marriage, that spouse has a “right” to claim that asset as their separate property. Through this process, there is typically a “winner,” and a “loser.”
In navigating this traditional rights-based approach, the judicial system is structured to purportedly provide spouses with an organized, structured system to gather information to enforce their individual rights. Through the discovery process, requests for documents, sworn-to answers to written questions, and even depositions for in‑person testimony of a spouse before trial are all mechanisms that a lawyer could use to obtain any information he or she may need to enforce those rights.
In reality, lawyers practicing family law know that neither concept is completely true in a litigated divorce. Our laws are fraught with balancing tests and multi-factor considerations, making the concept of whether a spouse truly has a right to anything in the divorce process unclear. The discovery process is also expensive and inefficient, with lawyers often requesting thousands of pages of documents that, at the end of the day, have little to no consequence to the outcome for a spouse. But again, what does any of these concepts have to do with the most popular song of 2013?
Rejoicing in the Power to Let Go of Positions
Image by Максим Степаненко (Unsplash)
In my first collaborative case, I still felt like my role as lawyer for my client involved enforcing her rights to her non-marital property and making sure that I received the documents that proved those assets were non-marital. Despite numerous conversations with my client as to her concerns regarding the costs of lawyer’s fees, her goal to have an efficient divorce process, and her personal goals of traveling the world while she still had time, I still felt my job was to protect her rights through ensuring that the husband would be forced to prove his positions.
With that in mind, I remember distinctly when I realized that the great part of the collaborative divorce process was that I could let go of these traditional notions, models and systems, and ultimately put my full effort into what I now know is my personal objective with every collaborative case I take on: to have a full understanding of what my client’s ultimate goals really are, whether or not those goals align with what I believe the law might say about a client’s particular set of facts; and to lean on my team to assist in accomplishing those goals.
This lesson is clear in a letter I wrote as a part of our case. The husband had provided to our neutral financial professional documents in response to the financial professional’s initial request. Those documents were made available to both the husband’s lawyer and me. After reviewing those documents, I recognized immediately that many documents were missing, and feeling like I needed to protect my client, I immediately wrote a 4-page letter to the husband’s lawyer outlining my detailed analysis of all of the additional information that must be provided to the husband. With 5 years and dozens of collaborative divorce cases under my belt, my behavior in writing that letter was, honestly, embarrassing.
The husband’s lawyer graciously called me a few hours after receiving my letter. Older, wiser, and having made a complete paradigm shift to non-adversarial advocacy, the husband’s lawyer gently asked whether I had asked our neutral financial professional his opinion as to whether he had the information he needed to assist our clients in building options. I sheepishly answered, “No.” The husband’s lawyer reminded me of my admiration for our financial professional and asked whether I trusted the financial professional to assist us in making sure that we had the necessary information. I enthusiastically answered, “Yes.”
While the husband’s lawyer does not remember saying this, his next words I will never forget:
“Chris, I have been doing this for a long time. At some point, I realized that to help our clients truly accomplish their goals, we have to let go of the idea that it is our job to make decisions for them or speak on their behalf, and instead, walk them down the path to realizing for themselves what they want in their new lives. Through this process, we lean on each other to assist our clients in getting there on their own terms.”
The Collaborative Castle: Focusing on Clients’ Goals
Image by Marc Wieland (Unsplash)
Since that first case, I have carried that lesson with me through many successful collaborative divorce cases. I have let go of the concept that it is my job as a lawyer to have my client defer to my expertise, and to base their decisions in their case on that expertise only. Instead, I am honest and transparent with my collaborative team as to my client’s overall goals, how those goals may align with their spouse, and how as a team we can work together to hopefully have two spouses accomplish their goals together on their own terms.
Attorney Christopher Sprysenski is the founder of The Florida Family Firm, in Altamonte Springs, Florida that services clients throughout the state of Florida in a variety of alternatives to traditional litigated divorces. Attorney Sprysenski is President Elect of the Collaborative Family Law Group of Central Florida (https://cfl-cfl.com), a member of the Florida Academy of Collaborative Professionals Leadership Institute for its inaugural class in 2019-2020, a Past President of the Seminole County Bar Association, and a Past President of the Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society. Attorney Sprysenski has been named by Florida Trend magazine as a Legal Elite attorney for 2020 in the area of family practice and has been named a Super Lawyers Rising Star for family law for 2018 through 2020. To learn more about Attorney Sprysenski and his practice, visit http://www.chrissprysenski.com/.