Collaborative Law and Social Work
Collaborative Law and Social Work
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Collaborative Family Law offers divorcing couples a new approach to untangling
marriage. The traditional approach has family lawyers settle disputes with at
least the threat of litigation. Collaborative Family Law takes the threat of
litigation out of the equation to concentrate on helping the parties settle
between themselves yet with legal support. Litigation is not an option. Lawyers
practicing Collaborative Family Law report more satisfaction with this form of
practice and believe that negotiated settlements leave the parties more intact
as individuals and as parents.
Along with the new approach to settling disputes, there is a new role for those
professionals who would otherwise practice divorce mediation or provide custody
and access assessments.
These professionals, often social workers and psychologists, are being
reenlisted by Collaborative Lawyers as Divorce Coaches and Child Specialists.
In traditional family law a Divorce Coach may be hired to prepare one parent for
court in order to gain a strategic advantage in the litigation process. In the
Collaborative Law context, the Divorce Coach helps the parent to understand
emotional issues that could cause him or her to be unreasonable. In other words,
in the former context the coach helps make a better warrior for the battle of
litigation, while in the latter context the coach helps make a better
conciliator to facilitate settlement. Within the Collaborative Law model each
parent has his or her own Divorce Coach.
The “Child Specialist” is generally described in therapeutic terms, working with
the children directly. In this context, the Child Specialist meets with the
children to help them deal with the impact of the parents’ divorce on their
lives. The Child Specialist may also share information with parents to help them
protect the children from untoward outcomes.
There can be challenges arising when using individual Divorce Coaches and Child
Specialists as described. Each coach may provide perspectives or information to
their respective client that pulls them in different directions, confounding
settlement. Certainly “over-identification” with one’s client is a risk inherent
in any form of individual support. Further, when a Child Specialist meets alone
with children, there can be conflicts of interest and confidentiality issues if
the Child Specialist then reports to parents. Some jurisdictions have
confidentiality rules for counselors working with children, particularly early
There are ways to mitigate these issues. Social workers have a rich tradition in
working with entire families. As such, the social worker can engage the entire
family in a consultant role. Within this role, perhaps titled Family Divorce
Consultant, one social worker would be assigned, rather than two coaches.
Working from a system’s theory perspective and using clinical discretion, the
social worker would have latitude to meet with the entire family system and/or
pertinent subsystems (marital, sibling, parent-child and even individuals) as
The Family Divorce Consultant’s involvement would be time limited and goal
directed. The goal is to facilitate transition to a new family structure
(pre-divorce to post divorce) whilst maintaining the integrity of pertinent
relationships. Further, the consultant would provide education to the parents to
facilitate their mutual interest – the well-being of their children now and
Social Work has much to offer Collaborative Family Law. Social Work is built on
a tradition of inter-disciplinary teamwork with the goal of win/win outcomes.
The structural changes sought to facilitate post-divorce adjustment meet well
with the training and values of social workers. Collaborative lawyers and social
workers make a natural team.
Collaborative lawyers looking for social workers should consider those with; a
“systems” perspective; custody and access experience; current knowledge of
relevant theory and practice of divorce and child development; and good
inter-personal boundaries. Collaborative Law marks a revolution in thinking.
Next will be interesting to view the evolution. Social work is a good fit.
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