On Love

Divorce lawyer encourage clients to consider collaborative divorce

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

It used to be all business for divorce lawyer Regina DeMeo.

Her approach was always the same: "This is a partnership and the partnership is dissolving. What are the assets? What is the time-sharing arrangement you think is going to work best? Okay, come on," she would think. "Get yourself together and let's move on."

Then, after seven years of marriage, DeMeo went through her own divorce.

"It was a very humbling experience," she says. "All your dreams are shattered . . . your whole world is rocked."

DeMeo began reading everything she could about what makes and breaks marriages, and she changed the way she practices law. Soon after the divorce, the George Washington University Law School graduate became trained in a growing practice called collaborative divorce.

Now when a potential client lands in her office, she asks to hear the story of the marriage and the reasons for divorce. When there's even a hint of ambivalence she'll nudge the client toward a counselor. "If you can save this marriage, that's what you should try to do," says DeMeo, 37. "Because I can tell you personally, I've been down this dark path, and it's not fun."

But if clients are sure that ending the marriage is the only solution, she'll encourage them to consider collaborative divorce, a process that requires both spouses to agree not to go to court. Instead, they and their individual lawyers, along with mental health professionals and a neutral financial adviser, meet to openly hash out the terms of the divorce. The process requires that all relevant information be shared willingly -- "so I don't have to issue subpoenas to 50 different banks and waste time and money," says DeMeo, a lawyer with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake in Rockville.

The couple has to reach an agreement on every issue that needs to be addressed -- including child-care arrangements, real estate decisions and division of assets. And if they don't reach a complete agreement, both lawyers lose the case. The couple will lose all the money they've invested in the process and must start over with new attorneys.

DeMeo, who is president of the Collaborative Divorce Association, a group that promotes the practice, says the process is less painful than a divorce that involves litigation. "There are no surprises," she says. "And they feel like they own it because they're the final decision makers, as opposed to some person they've never met before who's going to hear their case for six hours and make a decision for the rest of their lives."

And maybe more important than that, she says, the collaborative divorce process forces two people whose lines of communication are broken to learn to work together and talk respectfully to each other. "Because if you have kids, you're going to have to continue to communicate for the next 20 years," she says.

About a quarter of DeMeo's clients choose to conduct collaborative divorces, a percentage she hopes will grow significantly in the years ahead. But it's not for everyone, she realizes, and can run counter to what many lawyers are trained to do regarding the protection of their clients' information.

Still, she remains in favor of anything that can mitigate the emotional devastation that often accompanies divorce. But she knows as well as anyone that much of the pain has already been inflicted by the time clients reach her. "You can't undo damage that's been going on for the last five years," she says. "Marriage is like a plant, and if you don't water it and give it sunlight, it's going to die. You can't just take it for granted."

DeMeo thinks her own experiences have made her a better, more empathetic lawyer.

"I really know what they're going through," she says. "But I would much rather have paid for the knowledge without having the pain."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company