By: Chris Farish Co-Chair IACP Research Committee
The 2015 IACP Client Satisfaction Study attempted to compare overall client satisfaction with different divorce processes. While we certainly received a wealth of information about how clients view different processes, the feedback was made more difficult to interpret because most responders didn’t have a basis for comparison between processes. It is hard to say whether a client is more or less satisfied by a process when the process they used is the only process they have ever used to divorce a spouse. There is no comparison, thus process satisfaction is more tied to a perception of the outcome achieved than to a contrast between the outcomes that would or could have been achieved with other processes. As Collaborative practitioners, it is incumbent upon us all to not only educate our clients of the benefits of the Collaborative process at the beginning of a case but also to extoll the virtues of the resolutions the clients reach in the process and help them to understand how the process aided in this resolution.
Therefore, it is perhaps more helpful to examine the study in a different way and attempt to focus on where clients develop their expectations. Perception of expected outcome in a financial context is driven by multiple factors, of which Collaborative practitioners need to be keenly aware when speaking to clients about finances. Clients develop expectations from others in their lives who have recently divorced, from internet searches relating to Family Law and division of assets, from their Collaborative lawyer, from a neutral financial professional and sometimes from exposure to litigation attorneys prior to or during the process. These varying sources can create expectation confusion in clients, and that confusion is often expressed in disappointment with the overall result.
The study found that a low percentage of Collaborative clients (24%) were “very satisfied” with their overall financial outcome, but Collaborative clients as a whole fairly strongly correlated their satisfaction with the overall financial outcome (whether positive or negative) with satisfaction with the Collaborative Process. In contrast, a larger percentage of Collaborative clients (40% - 44%) were “very satisfied” with specific financial outcomes (i.e.: division of financial accounts, division of debts or handling of the marital residence) but Collaborative clients as a whole weakly correlated satisfaction on specific outcomes with satisfaction with the Collaborative Process.
I believe you can attribute this disparity to the expectation confusion, and in doing so, Collaborative practitioners can adjust their messaging to better clear up the confusion. The greatest benefits of the Collaborative Process are that clients are in control of their own solution and have a team of professionals devoted to helping them to resolve their disputes without litigation. However, it is important to be clear that being in control of your solution does not necessarily equate to receiving a greater percentage of the proverbial pie that must be divided.
I believe there is a tendency early in the process to overemphasize to our clients the possibility of controlling their financial division, which leads to a misunderstanding where clients believe they will receive “more” in the Collaborative Process. When a client enters the process believing it to be the door through which they will receive “more” they have expectations that have been set far too high at the start, which results in a low percentage (24%) who ultimately feel “very satisfied” with their financial outcome. Those that do actually receive “more” are likely to be more satisfied with the process as a whole, but those that do not are unlikely to report being “very satisfied” with their division.
Collaborative practitioners need to refocus on the fact that clients controlling their own process allows them to better divide assets and debts in a way that addresses their individual interests and goals in the process. The study results indicate that when a client felt that their interests and goals were heard by everyone and were addressed in how the assets and debts were divided, they are more likely to be “very satisfied” with those specific financial outcomes that addressed their needs. It is at this point that Collaborative practitioners need to make it clear to the client that the results they received were attributable to the process itself and the team pulling together to develop options that met the interests and goals of both clients.
By clearly establishing expectations, which do not include a perception of receiving “more” or being able to avoid child support or alimony, Collaborative practitioners can focus their clients on the benefits of the Collaborative Process that they are more likely to receive and appreciate. We can make it clear to them that the process and the team were integral parts of being able to reach the resolutions the clients achieved.
The question is: How do we impart the value received to our clients after their dispute has been resolved? Should we schedule debriefs with clients to discuss their process? Is it enough to openly express our professional opinions during option development to point out options that are developed and selected that would be unlikely in another process? Does this feel like unnecessarily bolstering the Collaborative Process or minimalizing another process?
Clearly, we need to better communicate and help clients appreciate when they reach a resolution they would likely not have reached in another process. We need to draw their attention gently to the differences in processes in order to help them compare in a more meaningful way. We do not need to diminish or demean other processes, but rather be more aware of those moments when the Collaborative Process reaches a resolution that would have been difficult, if not impossible, in another process, and to be certain that the clients have enough information to appreciate that success.
Chris Farish is a Collaborative lawyer and mediator in Dallas, and he is a partner in the firm of Quaid Farish, LLC. He is a Board Certified Family Law Specialist in Texas.
Chris is currently serving his second term as President of the Board of Directors of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. Chris has trained Collaborative professionals in the Dallas area, and presented on Collaborative Practice to practice groups in several U.S. states, presented at several statewide conferences, at the IACP Annual Networking and Education Forum, and has presented on Collaborative Divorce at several international conferences.
In addition to his service to the Collaborative community, Chris is the Immediate Past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Family Law Section Board and on the Board of Directors of the Collin County Bench Bar Foundation.