Are we listening? What clients say they want. (Part 4 of 8) -- Respect: Clients value it, but do we understand how to provide it?

By: Robert M. Arthur, Member IACP Research Committee

At least in my practice group, we stress the respectfulness of the Collaborative Process as a differentiating factor compared to other divorce processes. Our clients seem to have heard that message, because it was the top reason that clients chose a Collaborative Divorce Process, according to the most recent IACP research study, the Divorce Experience Study. In that study, 78% of respondents who chose Collaborative for their divorce said that they chose Collaborative because it was a “more respectful process.”

The other process options do not have the same perception. It’s not even close. Only 18% of those who chose traditional divorce, 25% of those who chose a DIY process, and 30% of those who chose other settlement processes made their choice because they thought it would be more respectful. Clearly, Collaborative Divorce clients are expecting that the Collaborative Process will feature the idea of respect, and they likely expect that Collaborative Practitioners will be skilled in implementing respectfulness in the process.

We appear to be meeting their expectations, at least somewhat. In the same study, 52% of those clients who chose Collaborative Divorce reported that they were very satisfied with the respectfulness of the process. Furthermore, their satisfaction on that point was strongly correlated with their satisfaction with the Collaborative Process overall. If those clients were satisfied with the respectfulness of the process, they were very likely to be satisfied overall.

So, if this concept is important, do we really know what “respectfulness” means in the Collaborative Divorce context? The term has a generic meaning that we all understand (“due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others”), but I confess that I have not given a great deal of thought to what it actually means to foster a “respectful” divorce process. I don’t recall ever discussing it with any of my colleagues, and I don’t recall ever seeing it as a topic in a Collaborative training event that I’ve attended, beyond a passing mention.

To a certain degree, the Collaborative Process design generates an environment of respectfulness. As one example, we avoid trips to the courthouse, which can be a tedious, stressful process for most people. Do any of us have clients that enjoy taking their shoes off and being searched in a courthouse security line? Does any client feel that their feelings were respected after cross examination by opposing counsel at a contested hearing? By conducting our process outside of that environment, we avoid situations that erode respect between the parties and the practitioners.

There are more active examples where the Collaborative Process design generates an environment of respectfulness, though. Our use of the interdisciplinary team is an approach that tends to encourage mutual respect between practitioners in a practice group. If the parties see mutual respect between the practitioners in a meeting, the parties are more likely to mirror that respectful behavior during the meeting. That practice of respectful behavior, in turn, may breed an internal attitude of respect that may linger beyond the meeting between the parties.

We can, and should do more, however. When we talk about Collaborative Divorce with prospective clients, “respectfulness” is a strong part of our message. Our clients are expecting it, and they appear to value it highly. Speaking for myself, I don’t think it is sufficient to rely on the process design to generate an environment of respectfulness. We can be more aware of the actions, words, and behaviors that reinforce the concept of respect, and those that degrade the perception of respect by our clients.

For example, one operational aspect of “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others” is empathy. In mediation training, we often discuss the concept of empathy and emotional intelligence in general. I don’t recall it ever being a large part of Collaborative Divorce training, however. Perhaps we should spend more time and effort on that.

For another example, having due regard for the “rights or traditions” of others requires awareness of traditions, values, and experiences beyond our own. We are naturally myopic, and it requires effort to stay aware of things beyond our own experience. I have certainly seen these sorts of topics in Collaborative Divorce trainings, and in other training events in the legal profession. However, I don’t think I’ve ever strongly connected this sort of training with encouraging an attitude and environment of respectfulness, which is highly important for client satisfaction.

As our research shows us, clients are listening to us when we tell them the Collaborative Divorce process is a more respectful process. They highly value it, and they expect it. We can be more intentional in delivering it.

Robert McMillan Arthur is a Collaborative Attorney and mediator practicing in the Metro Milwaukee area and the Fox Valley. His practice concentrates on Divorce & Family Law, in addition to Entertainment and Intellectual Property Law, Small Business Law, and Nonprofit Law. Robert’s family law practice is centered around Collaborative Family Law, using his experience and training to empower and inform clients, advocate for their interests, and guide them in difficult problem solving. He is a board member of the Collaborative Family Law Council of Wisconsin.