Patricia Mallon’s opening address picked up and gave voice to this spirit perfectly, focusing on the theme of reconciliation, the healing of old wounds through new collaborations built on dialogue where past differences become a shared source of regret rather than a cause for further entrenched polarising. Listening to her talk, in the airy grandeur of the main hall at Ashton Court Mansion, gave me much the same feeling as watching Obama’s speech in Westminster Hall - a sense of the defensive posturing we all so easily fall into when we feel threatened being seen for what it is; an artificial boundary between nations, cultures and the old and new that stunts our shared potential rather than enabling it.
The point that this proneness to anxious tribalism is just as strong in us collaborative professionals as in our divorcing clients was implied, if not actually stated, more powerfully at this conference than at any other I’ve attended. Tricia Peters’ address, after lunch, taking up Patricia Mallon’s earlier themes with remarkable synchronicity, was a deliciously unpretentious call-to-collaborative-arms - an urge to just get on with it, to try things, to work out what works by doing it, and most of all to do this with colleagues who we like the look of who are from outside the comfort zone of our own professional groupings. Tricia described this as the ‘second paradigm shift’ for lawyers, the first having been from litigation to collaborative law, this one the move from collaborative law to fully integrated, interdisciplinary collaborative practice. This was powerful indeed from a non-legal keynote speaker; a professional who has fought for her own equal standing at the collaborative gate, so to speak. Perhaps it’s not surprising in this particular gathering - many of us intrigued by the vision of the second shift even if a little daunted by the detail of its implementation - that her words were so welcome and inspiring.
As one of the seminar leaders, something else I noticed with quiet pleasure was the depth of the questions I was asked at my sessions, and the compassionate interest they showed in the subjective life of our clients. This reminded me of something I was told by members of the Vancouver collaborative group - that in a well-seasoned and experienced interdisciplinary setting it becomes hard to distinguish the lawyers from the FCs from the IFAs. Their ways of thinking and talking about clients become increasingly similar as they borrow the best from each other’s ways of working. The groups I worked with at Ashton Court were clearly on that journey, and clearly enjoying the wider field of awareness they were gaining from it.
As I was leaving the conference I remarked to a colleague that I felt as if I’d been at a wedding - one where I couldn’t entirely let my hair down because I had a responsible role to fulfill! It was an off-the-cuff remark made without thought. But later I remembered writing somewhere else that in order to facilitate our clients towards getting the best possible divorce, we as collaborative professionals need to forge the best possible ‘marriages‘ between ourselves. Maybe the ‘marriage’ idea wasn’t, then, quite so whacky. In fact, maybe it summed up the very essence of why this day could be as enjoyable as it was while also mattering so much.
by Chris Mills