Why Work to Reach an Agreement?

I can think of a few reasons to focus your time, money and energy on reaching an agreement to resolve your divorce, support, custody or other family law matter or estate administration conflict. The first three reasons are your time, money and energy and how important those resources are to you. The second three reasons are your children, your privacy and your health. They are not necessarily listed in order of importance and this is definitely not a comprehensive list of reasons. I’m sure this is not the only blog post I’ve written or will write about the benefits of working to resolve conflicts by agreement.

Do you value your time, money and energy? In my experience, most people hate feeling that they wasted their time, money or energy. Working toward reaching an agreement to resolve conflicts can be the best use of your time, money and energy. Compare the litigation process, which is designed to have divorcing spouses or other parties take a position, dig in and fight as hard as possible to convince the judge, divorce master or other decision maker that they are right and their spouse is wrong, to the alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative process, where spouses mutually work toward an overall agreement privately, therefore avoiding the entire court process. It is difficult to appreciate the amount of time, energy and money involved in the discovery, petitions, motions, other filings, pretrial conferences, settlement conferences, court hearings, etc. required for the court process unless you have actually experienced it first-hand. As an attorney, my first-hand experience with the litigation process has influenced the way I practice law and is a source of my encouragement for clients to use alternative dispute resolution methods.

Do you value your children? Your privacy? Your health? Will your children be better off seeing their parents engaged in an adversarial litigation process, striving to prove that each of them is right and the other wrong? Children know what’s happening in a family without their parents sitting down and explaining it to them. They also have their parents as their primary role models – for better or for worse. Would it bother you to have a public record consisting of court filings alleging everything under the sun between you and your spouse? Are you eager to air all of your dirty laundry in an on-line court docket? Last, but not least, how do you think the stress of litigation affects your physical and mental health?

If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss using alternative dispute resolution methods to reach agreements or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Methods

“Alternative” refers to alternatives to litigation (the court process). If you need to resolve a conflict, but don’t want to go through the court process (I advise avoiding court if possible!) then you have alternatives to consider. I strongly recommend alternative dispute resolution methods to my clients for divorce and other family law conflicts. This is not an all-inclusive list, but you can consider the following: 1) sit down and reach an agreement on your own; 2) mediation; 3) collaborative law; and 4) arbitration.

Reaching an agreement on your own can save a lot of time and money, but it is not realistic for most divorcing couples because they are unable to effectively communicate. It can also be legally hazardous. It’s great if divorcing spouses can communicate effectively and address dividing their assets and debts, providing financial support and making parenting arrangements (custody) privately. Even if no attorneys or other third persons are involved in the negotiations, both spouses should get independent legal advice before signing any agreement. I have worked with divorce clients who entered into an agreement prepared on their own or downloaded from the internet (Bad Idea!) that ended up not saying what they wanted it to say or thought it said. It is more costly and time-consuming to challenge an agreement afterwards than it is to do it right the first time.

Mediation is a great way to have a neutral third person (the mediator) help spouses have the difficult conversations necessary to resolve their divorce and related financial and parenting issues. There are high quality mediators available in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas. I conduct private divorce and other family law mediations and also recommend mediation as an alternative for my divorce clients. Both spouses should be represented by attorneys in the mediation process to get private legal advice.

Collaborative law is an organized, effective process designed to help spouses resolve their divorce and related financial and parenting conflicts in a private, respectful manner. Clients and their collaboratively trained attorneys meet with an agreed-upon agenda to systematically make decisions based on their interests and concerns. I am collaboratively trained and encourage my clients to use the collaborative process if both spouses are interested in a mutually acceptable divorce resolution. Central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, has a thriving community of collaboratively trained attorneys.

Arbitration is a private litigation process, where the spouses choose the decision-maker and present their respective sides of the divorce conflict to him or her through their lawyers. Arbitration is often used in conjunction with mediation, where spouses agree to mediate their divorce and related financial and parenting issues and give the mediator the authority to make decisions as an arbitrator if they are unable to come to an agreement.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss alternative dispute resolution methods for divorce or any other family law issue, please contact me.

My Approach to Practicing Law

I emphasize providing “effective and efficient legal services.” That means I want to do everything necessary to serve my clients and accomplish their goals. I do not want to take unnecessary actions or make my clients incur unnecessary expenses. I strongly believe in self-determination and encourage my clients to be actively involved in the decision-making regarding their legal actions. Three general principles are integral to my family law and estate planning practice.

First – Use my time and your money wisely. Don’t pay my hourly rate to do things that you can accomplish on your own, such as gathering and organizing financial or other documentation. Gathering and organizing information is an inevitable part of most divorce actions, but it is not the most effective or efficient use of your money or my time to have me do it, assuming you are capable of doing so. Also, use my time and experience to address legal issues. We will certainly discuss the personal and emotional aspects of a legal problem, but don’t use me as your therapist. That’s why I recommend that all of my clients engage a therapist while experiencing divorce proceedings.

Second – Make decisions privately and use court only as a last resort. I practice primarily in Dauphin, Cumberland and York counties and they all have excellent court personnel and judges. However, the court process is not the most effective or efficient way to resolve divorce and other family disputes. By engaging the help of a mediator or collaborative law professionals you can resolve divorce and related family disputes privately and more effectively and efficiently than through litigation. If you have never been involved in litigation, then you must take my word for it and heed my advice – that’s why you hired me, right?

Third – Focus on what’s important to you and don’t get distracted. Most of my clients want to have their divorce or other family conflict resolved or their estate plan created and move on with their lives. Part of my job is to remind my clients of their goals and question whether their actions are furthering those goals and are in line with the things they tell me are important to them.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey, Mechanicsburg and surrounding communities and would like to discuss how I practice or any other family law or estate planning issue, please contact me.

Where I Practice

Attorneys are licensed to practice throughout the state, so in theory I can practice in any Pennsylvania county. However, most attorneys limit their practice areas to certain geographical locations. I’m no exception. I practice primarily in Cumberland, Dauphin and York Counties. Therefore, the majority of my clients are from Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey, York and surrounding communities. It makes sense for me to limit the counties in which I regularly practice for a couple reasons.

The first is convenience and practical considerations for my clients and myself. The majority of my clients live and/or work in central Pennsylvania, primarily Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey, York and surrounding communities. They can travel to my office relatively easily from all of those areas when necessary. Although we can usually handle a lot of communication by mail, email and telephone, some things must be done in person. I also conduct mediation sessions and collaborative law meetings in my office. It is convenient for me to travel to Carlisle, Harrisburg and York for necessary court filings and appearances and that travel time does not unnecessarily increase the cost to my clients.

The second is maintaining familiarity with local court rules, procedures and expectations. All counties have local rules dealing with certain procedural issues. These local rules are not consistent from one county to another and are changed on a fairly regular basis. Each county also follows certain procedures for court conferences and hearings. For example, in Dauphin County, if either party disagrees with a support order recommended by the Domestic Relations conference officer, he or she can request a hearing before a judge. In Cumberland County, the hearing request goes to a Support Master instead of a judge. Every judge also has his or her preferences for submitting pleadings, contacting the court and courtroom procedures.

Although I encourage my clients to resolve their conflicts privately and without court intervention, sometimes the court is involved as a last resort if they are unable to reach an agreement or if their spouse chooses to pursue litigation. Therefore, I want to be aware of the local court rules, procedures and expectations. The best way for me to maintain that awareness is to limit the counties in which I will go to court.

If a client from a different area wants me to represent him or her and is aware of the possible increased expense due to travel, I will do so. If a client from a different area wants to engage in mediation or the collaborative law process and is willing to travel to my office, I will do so. If you would like to discuss this or any other estate planning or family law related issue in or out of the Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey or York areas, please contact me.

Gathering Information

Regardless of the process you use to go through a divorce, you must gather information in order to make informed decisions. There are numerous ways to gather information, ranging from relatively simple and inexpensive to increasingly complex and increasingly expensive. The information you need is the same no matter what process you use to obtain it. You need information regarding incomes, marital assets and liabilities, nonmarital assets and liabilities, education and earning capacities, health problems and treatments and most likely some other information specific to your marital situation.

Ideally, you and your spouse will agree on the process used to gather information. That way you have a “game plan” understood by both of you. You and your spouse can do the majority of the legwork to gather information, saving both of you some counsel fees and emphasizing the fact that you can work together to resolve your divorce. That means agreeing that you will exchange information that’s important to both of you, share it with your attorneys and streamline the information gathering process.

Some processes, such as mediation and the collaborative law process, incorporate information gathering into the decision-making steps. As part of the mediation and collaborative process, both spouses agree that they will voluntarily provide information that’s relevant to decision-making and that information gathering is done informally. It is both effective and efficient without taking unnecessary time or expense.

Information gathering in the litigation process is usually different. This often involves the exchange of formal written request for information such as interrogatories and requests for production of documents. It can also include depositions, where individuals are asked questions under oath with a court reporter present. It may involve subpoenas to third parties for information. All of these methods include much greater involvement by both attorneys in the information gathering process and are more confrontational in their approach. They are more expensive and more likely to harm the relationship between spouses instead of helping them work together.

Ultimately you and your spouse decide how to gather information. If you are in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, York and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss the issue of gathering information or any other family law related issue, please contact me.

Basics of Mediation

Mediation is negotiating with the assistance of a neutral third party (the mediator) who facilitates the negotiation process. Mediation involves non-adversarial negotiation between individuals based on their interests, needs and concerns. It is usually an informal process, with the mediation sessions taking place in a conference room setting. The parties participate in a series of mediation sessions in which they work jointly to resolve their conflicts without litigating the case in court. Mediation allows the parties to be in control of the decision-making process and requires that both of them be involved for the conflict to be resolved.
Usually the parties and the mediator are the only people actually involved in the mediation sessions, although the parties should also be represented by their own attorneys. The parties’ attorneys can provide legal advice outside of the mediation sessions and review the terms of a proposed agreement to make sure the agreement is legal and enforceable. Generally, the parties’ attorneys will also prepare the formal agreement containing the terms arrived at by the parties during the mediation process. The mediator may also speak with the parties’ attorneys.
The mediator does not offer legal advice to either party and does not make decisions for the parties. Instead, the mediator serves as a neutral third person who helps the parties interact with each other in a purposeful and non-threatening manner. The mediator guides the conversation during the mediation process, but the parties decide which issues they will address and which issues are the most important to them.
Individuals may use mediation to address virtually any conflict they encounter with any other individual or business. In the area of family mediation, the parties can address divorce, child custody and co-parenting arrangements, division of assets and financial issues such as child and spousal support. Individuals can even attend mediation to work out the terms of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
Effective mediation can influence how individuals interact with each other, even after the mediation process has ended. Effective communication between the parties is the basis for mediation. This sets it apart from litigation, in which the court’s decision is not usually dependent on whether the parties can communicate effectively. Parties do not need to communicate effectively before attending mediation, but during the mediation process they must be willing to explore more effective communication techniques.
If you would like to discuss mediation in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey and surrounding areas, or any other family law issue, please contact me.