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November 6, 2015

Taking Pro Bono Collaborative Law Statewide

This blog article is from Norma Trusch, a Houston-based collaborative family lawyer and longtime proponent of collaborative law. This is a preview of an article appearing in the upcoming edition of Roadmap, the  Collaborative Institute of Texas newsletter.

Like many of you, I have long felt that our wonderful collaborative law process should be made available to every family facing divorce. So, after many years of talking about it, we finally have an opportunity to make that happen here in Texas.

On behalf of CLI-TX and the Collaborative Law Section of the State Bar, Jack Emmott and I have been working on a pilot project with Houston Volunteer Lawyers (HVL) to bring collaborative law to families who couldn’t afford it. As a member of the board of HVL, I was fortunate to find an Executive Director who “got it” as soon as she heard about our process. As ED for HVL, Allison Rubin Gomez was faced with the organization’s perpetual problem: most of the demand for free legal services was from people needing assistance in getting divorced, and few non-family lawyers wanted to take cases that would require them to go to family court. The solution: a pilot project to train corporate and civil lawyers in collaborative law and pair them with volunteers from the Collaborative Law Section of the Houston Bar Association and with members of our practice group, Collaborative Family Lawyers of Houston, to take collaborative law cases pro bono.

Jack, Alissa, Chloe Walker, two HVL staff lawyers, Stephanie Sommerlatte and Michael Hofrichter, and I met about a year and a half ago to think through what would be involved in creating a pro bono collaborative law program in conjunction with HVL. With the outline of the program in mind, I created some forms and revised others for the use of the volunteers and their clients. To test our ideas, we trained all of the HVL staff attorneys in collaborative law. Keeping in mind that pro bono cases are often difficult to finalize due to the lack of incentive of the clients to work efficiently, the program we designed only guarantees the clients an initial meeting with a communications facilitator and three two-hour joint meetings. The volunteers can always decide to extend the time allotted, but we have left that to their sole discretion.

Within a short period of time, we had two pro bono collaborative cases signed up and ready to go. Jack Emmott and Brad Morris and two HVL staff attorneys represented the clients with Faith Wilson facilitating one of the cases. We were very fortunate to have Brad Morris as a willing volunteer from our practice group, since he speaks fluent Spanish, as did Stephanie Sommerlatte, the HVL staff attorney. Both cases settled. Naturally, we all debriefed, and Alissa and I revised some of the documents based on lessons learned at the initial stage.

Several weeks ago, I trained 16 attorneys from big name firms and corporations to take pro bono cases. (The added bonus here being that now all these civil lawyers know about collaborative law and can spread the gospel of Stu Webb to their friends and colleagues.) HVL screens the cases and then assigns them to volunteers. The program is ready to go statewide! When I attended a workshop on pro bono collaborate law at the recent IACP Forum I learned that every program is slightly different, and I’m sure that each Texas city will have their own special approach. But the groundwork has been laid. Jack and I look forward to assisting CLI-TX and Collaborative Law Section members across the state as they spread the benefits of collaborative law.

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