Jessica was ahead of her time when she, unknowingly, had a type of collaborative divorce with her ex. Andrea Vacca explains how a Collaborative Divorce is a team of “essential” players to help the couple come to an agreement in an amicable manner.
- Collaborative divorce is a team of professionals who are committed and licensed in this practice
- Understand your divorce options
- Collaborative divorce supports the emotional side of the process, in addition to the business of divorce.
OUR GUEST – ANDREA VACCA, VACCA FAMILY LAW
Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS Divorce etc… Podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re Jessica and T.H.
T.H.: Hi, everyone. Today, Jessica and I are happy to have Andrea Vacca on our podcast. Andrea is a collaborative divorce attorney and mediator based in New York City. Welcome to our podcast today.
Andrea: Nice to see you both. Thanks for having me
Jessica: Thank you so much for being here.
T.H.: We spoke with Andrea about two weeks ago now and one of the topics we touched on was collaborative divorce. For me, that’s a theory because I didn’t actually experience that, but I do believe that it’s out there. Jessica did experience it, and Andrea –
Jessica: We didn’t even know that’s what we were doing.
T.H.: Right. We’re trendsetters. You’re a trendsetter anyway.
I think my first question to you is what is collaborative divorce?
Andrea: Collaborative divorce is a process where each client has their own attorney who is collaboratively trained. It’s a special training that we get as lawyers, and we are agreeing with our clients to stay out of court. We all sign an agreement saying that we will not litigate this divorce with you. Some of the other tenets of it are that it’s a non-adversarial process, no one will threaten each other or try to sign something under duress, it’s an open and transparent process where all information that is at all relevant will be shared and disclosed, we always keep the best interests of the children front and center in all of our discussions, we stay out of court, and it’s a team approach. We deal with the financial issues, the emotional issues, and the legal issues by bringing in a financial professional and a mental health professional who in New York, we call a family specialist, or sometimes they’re called a divorce coach. That’s the team of the collaborative process and that’s what sets it apart from a lot of other processes.
Jessica: I think a lot of people are going to wonder, who don’t know all of the specifics, what’s the difference specifically between collaborative divorce and mediation?
Andrea: In mediation we’re also agreeing not to go to court, but you’re just sitting down with one person and that your mediator. The way we do it in New York anyway, is generally your attorneys are not in the room with you. You probably have attorneys that you’re consulting with but they’re in their offices. You come to my office as a mediator and sit down with me alone, you and your spouse. I will walk you through all of the different issues that are relevant to your situation, but you have to be prepared to advocate for yourself, to know what questions to ask, and to say yes or no sometimes in the moment. Hopefully, you’re getting your advice from your lawyer along the way, but you’re more on your own. It’s self directed, but you don’t have an attorney by your side to help advocate for you. That’s the biggest difference.
T.H.: So you’re really setting – it’s like playing a sport, right? These are the rules of engagement, and everybody’s agreeing you’re signing this rule book. What happens if someone changes their mind?
Andrea: The agreement that we’re signing, I like that idea of the rule book and the rules of engagement, I like that a lot because we sign a participation agreement that’s six pages long. It says a lot, and it tells you how the collaborative process will end. Either you sign an agreement and get divorced, or somebody decides it’s not the right process for them, or perhaps one of the attorneys decides this isn’t the right process for the couple. We’re very clear about it, and we will communicate with each other. But yes, if a client, a spouse, going through this type of divorce doesn’t feel it’s the right process, we will terminate the collaborative process. Then they can move on and hire, take the case from wherever it is at that moment and move to a more adversarial process, if that’s what they choose to do. It’s very unusual though.
T.H.: It’s unusual. Yeah.
Andrea: It’s very unusual. Like less than 10% of the statistics I’ve heard of collaborative cases, don’t settle collaboratively.
Jessica: When it comes to the different members of the team that you’re bringing in, who’s deciding who those people are? Is it the couple that’s getting divorced that they have a say in it? Or is it the collaborative divorce expert who’s like this is my team?
Andrea: The way we do it in New York, it might be different from – this is practiced all over the world, so I can only speak for the New York practice group that I’m a member of, but how we do it is the team professionals, the two lawyers, will usually talk to each other and say who do we think would be a good fit for this couple. You know one spouse and I know the other, these are the issues, and who do we think would be a good fit? We might give them one or two names to interview, and sometimes we go, there’s definitely one person that will be really good for this couple. We know who it is, we’ll have them interview the financial specialist or the family specialist, and they can decide if our assumption is correct, but we don’t choose it without their okay. It’s very much a conversation that we have.
T.H.: Can any lawyer participate with you? If you were representing me, and you’re certified as a collaborative divorce attorney, could my spouse have an attorney that’s not necessarily certified for collaborative divorce?
Andrea: We’re not going to call it a collaborative divorce in that situation. I will only sign a participation agreement with an attorney who’s certified or has gotten the training. It’s not a very hard training to get. It’s like three days, two or three days, but you also have to be a mediator to become a collaborative lawyer. Without that basic knowledge, we’re not doing a collaborative divorce. But I have had in a number of situations where my client wanted a collaborative divorce, and their spouse hired someone who wasn’t collaboratively trained. What I do is I talk to them about the process, I try to bring in the other professionals, and I assure them I will never litigate. So let’s take the temperature down here, let’s try to talk about this, let’s try to have meetings in person, and let’s try to negotiate in a non-adversarial way. It works beautifully because I’m not going to go to court. Usually they’ll change, and they’ll shift a little bit when they realize that I’m not that type and I’m not threatening them with court. We’re going to have a different kind of divorce.
T.H.: When somebody wants to go through a divorce, I’m just trying to think back, mine was a while ago, and I just know that I had to get an attorney. I feel like at that time, it was an attorney or not an attorney. Now it’s not just an attorney, it’s certified in this that, this that. I feel like there are so many different certifications now for attorneys and specialists. How do people even know what their options are if they’re just like, I need a lawyer like yesterday and now I’ve got like a huge menu of lawyers?
Jessica: That’s such a good question. That’s so so true.
Andrea: It is. My number one tip would be to think ahead to the kind of divorce that you want. What do you want the process to feel like? What do you want your children to experience? How do you want them to think about mom and dad, or dad and dad, or mom and mom with divorce, whatever it may be? What kind of experience of a divorce do you want ideally? Then start interviewing lawyers to find out if they’re speaking the same language as you. If you want a divorce where you’re going to be able to sit down together at your kids’ graduation, dance at the wedding, have a holiday dinner together someday, if you want that kind of divorce, and your lawyer starts talking about we’re going to take him to the cleaners and oh my god, we will get him, and we will make sure he pays every dollar he needs to pay, you know you’re in the wrong chair. Say thank you and go somewhere else. If that’s the kind of divorce you want, you will find the right attorney for you whether they’re collaborative or not collaborative. You’ll know.
Jessica: Can you tell us a little bit, you said that that certification is about three days and not particularly difficult in terms of effort to actually get there, so that people understand a little more, can you tell us a little bit about what goes into that training? Why did you decide to become a collaborative divorce lawyer vs. just any kind of litigation?
Andrea: Sure. When I was practicing law for about 10 to 12 years or so, like halfway through my career so far, I heard about the collaborative divorce process. It literally was like a light shined down on the conference table I was sitting at and said, oh my goodness this is the path you need to take. I didn’t even know you could help people get divorced this way. I knew immediately I wanted to get the training. To become a collaborative lawyer, you need to go through a five day mediation training, so that’s the one thing. You have to be at 40 hours or so, 35 to 40 hours, of mediation training, and then you can do a two or three day collaborative training. It’s two separate things and because if your schedule is busy, it might be hard to find the right time to do that. But once you get that training, then you do additional training, and that’s the thing, you get your initial training and that’s great. You also have to be practicing family law for five years at least. Then you learn how to take off that litigation hat and put it over here so that you can actually have a more interest based conversation. Not positional negotiations but what’s important to you and what are your interests and needs. That’s the kind of negotiations we do in collaborative divorce.
T.H.: We interviewed another attorney based in Jersey who we described as the divorce disrupter, because his goal is to change the game. He said everything’s so antiquated, and he said there weren’t even family lawyers, divorce attorneys, way back when. You just got someone to go over papers and stuff, and now it’s like a whole industry based around it. I love the fact that there’s collaborative divorce. Also thinking back on the process, the first thing is get an attorney, and the second thing is I’ll spend, but how much money am I spending? Through collaborative divorce, I would assume that’s way more budget friendly? Obviously, litigation is just like put it over there under a garbage pail somewhere, but of all your options, mediation and collaborative divorce, are they pretty comparable if you have reasonable people and reasonable attorneys that you’re working with?
Jessica: I just want to jump in before you answer that Andrea, because it’s so funny T.H. that that’s what you’re thinking. Here I am listening, and I was going to say collaborative divorce with the whole team and with a financial person, I’m thinking this sounds really expensive. I’m so interested to hear what you’re going to have to spend.
T.H.: Right. Because you’re coming from a place of sitting down at a table, and I’m coming from four years of like all that. So for me, it’s like the deal of the century.
Jessica: Everyone’s going to be wondering how much something like this is going to end up costing at the end of the day, right?
Andrea: Okay, so I was just having this conversation with my team earlier today, my staff. Mediation is definitely the least expensive if it’s the right process for you. If you are able to advocate for yourself, and you and your spouse basically don’t have a huge power imbalance, whether that be emotional, financial, or intelligence, if as long as you’re kind of even in the power structure, and you can advocate for yourself, mediation is a great option. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. That’s like the softest option and will be less expensive if it’s right. Then next comes the collaborative process. It’s definitely less expensive than going to court but definitely more expensive than mediation. It will be. It will probably be maybe two or three more times expensive, because you need it. You need that to get the outcome that you want. Will your goals be met in mediation? Then do mediation. If they won’t, try collaborative, because collaborative is going to make sure your emotional communication issues are handled in a good way, and that the financial issues which can be very complicated, are really explored and the right deal is met that you can live with this agreement long term and you don’t have to go back to court later. You’re making an investment now so you get the return later. And then there’s litigation. It really depends on what you need, but if you pick the right process and you interview different people, you’ll find the right way for you.
Jessica: Getting back to what T.H. was asking earlier in terms of how does someone know what’s right for them? I get your answer is how you feel and what you see as the long game, and then you back it up, because then that’s the process you want to go through for divorce.
But at the same time, what would your advice be to someone who has heard about collaborative divorce, is really interested in it, maybe their about-to-be ex hasn’t and only knows the basics of you just go out and you just hire a lawyer, what’s the best way to have a conversation with them about collaborative divorce?
Andrea: Yeah. That’s really important because usually one person finds out about it before the other. It’s not the most well-known process. It should be, but it’s not yet. When a person goes to a lawyer and comes to me and I tell them about collaborative, they’re like that sounds exactly what we need, and this will work so well for us. Now what do I do? What I tell that client to do is I’ll work through it with them why do you want to divorce this way? What was it that appealed to you about this idea and this process? Let’s get clear on that, and then you could go home and talk to your spouse or on the phone wherever he or she may be and have the conversation. You say, look, this is what I learned, this is why I want to do it, and this is why I think it’ll be best for our children and for ourselves. My attorney that I’m interested in working with can give you a list of names or a website you can go to, but would you please at least have a conversation with a collaborative lawyer and see if it would be a good fit for you? What do you think? Another way, if they’re still on the fence and they’re like I don’t know if I want to do this, what I’ll tell my client and their spouse, I would suggest to go sit down with a family specialist, go sit down with that divorce coach professional, and have a conversation with them. This is a neutral person who can tell you more about the process from an emotional and communication standpoint. The two of you can ask your questions in a safer place so it’s not two lawyers. Again, it feels adversarial almost. That’s another way to do it. So you either have a conversation and or go sit down with a family specialist.
T.H.: I love the fact that you have a mental health specialist as part of the team for collaborative divorce. Because in so many of these podcasts that we’ve done, and everything that we talk about as we’re speaking to people about this project is, yes, you have the business side of it, but the emotional side will screw up the whole business side. If you don’t have emotional support in a way that you need, like Jessica and I had each other, but if we needed more than that, you’ve got to go find a therapist. The fact that you have someone there, I think is so great, but also thinking about a therapist, that’s a relationship you build with someone for trust. So to all of a sudden have this, how did you describe the person, what’s the title?
Andrea: We call them family specialists.
T.H.: So a family specialist comes in to get both people to trust that person. I’m sure you’re discussing custody and those kinds of things as well as keeping the temperature neutral, like you were saying, or just like not too high. That’s probably hard, isn’t it?
Andrea: It is difficult, probably for them, but that’s what they’re trained to do. Their role is to be trained in family, kid therapy, and couples counseling, so they have this experience of working with couples in a neutral way. We all realize that if you don’t handle the emotions properly, like you said, it will hijack the whole process. You won’t be able to make financial decisions, and you’re not going to make the best decisions around the parenting. The other benefit of having this person, the family specialist, is that you don’t need two lawyers negotiating your custody schedule, your parenting schedule, figuring out holidays, and where the kids are going to be. You don’t need lawyers for that. Those aren’t legal issues. They’re practical, logistical, and emotional issues. That’s why we can actually save some money in the collaborative process and have you sit down with a family specialist, and go to their office or on their Zoom link, whatever it may be, and have that conversation. They bring their expertise of child development, couples therapy, and all their other training to the process. And it’s not therapy. They’re not looking at the past. They’re looking at dealing in the present and helping you form a new future. Therapy is for the past. Therapy is for why you married that guy and what your mother did to you.
T.H.: Right. [Laughs] Those take more than probably the length of your divorce to figure out, but I love that that is an option. I unfortunately had to hire a custody expert, and he hired a custody expert. We had these complete strangers evaluating our parenting, our relationships with our children, and their relationships with us. It was so uncomfortable that I encouraged everybody to avoid that for everybody’s sake. My children were very young, so they won’t remember it, fortunately. That’s like a saving grace that they won’t remember that because it was just like a random person. So it’s really great that this is a neutral person working with both people in a practical way that’s not built around being in court and what you’re going to use in court. That’s really what they were digging for. What are we looking for that we can use in court to fight his case, as opposed to let’s look forward and see what works best for your kids and your schedules and your lifestyle.
Andrea: Exactly. It’s not trying to solve problems, you’re trying to create problems basically, and build a case. Look at what it did to you. You can see on your face the trauma is still with you and always will be from what you went through.
T.H.: There’s nothing worse than being questioned as a parent, your parenting skills. Like seriously? Are you seeing the shit I’ve been dealing with? My kids are great kids, and I’m not saying they said anything bad about me, but it’s very uncomfortable.
Jessica: No, and that’s why the collaborative process we’re so fascinated by it, because we are huge, and even though neither of us technically went through it, we are huge advocates of having that philosophy of looking ahead to what you want the future to look like with the relationships between yourselves, between the kids, and the family dynamic as a whole. We feel just really strongly this is a type of divorce that more people need to know about and learn about. Thank you so much for sharing all of that with the ExExperts community, we really appreciate it. For anyone who’s listening who wants to reach out and get more information for you, or consult with you and find out more, what are the best ways for them to reach you?
Andrea: The best way is to go to my website www.vaccalaw.com, we have lots of materials there. My blog is on there, lots of articles, many years of articles and videos, and all kinds of things that you can find out there. I have an eBook you can get there, it’s called Divorce without Court: A More Peaceful Solution, or you can call my office 212-768-1115.
Jessica: Excellent. We’ll have all of that contact information and all of that on our ExExperts site as well. Thank you so much for joining us today, Andrea. It was really great to have you.
Andrea: Thank you.
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