Laura Collins, J.D.Legal Counseling
I decided to become a mediator because I believe that the courtroom just isn’t the best place to resolve family conflict. In much the same way, my legal practice has developed as a way to help people solve their problems without representing them in court.
Every lawyer realizes early in her career that people crave informal legal advice. This usually takes the shape of friends and neighbors approaching you at a social event with a question about, not exactly the law, but about a situation they are in that may involve the law. I was duly warned about these informal consultations: people don’t ask their plumber for free plumbing help, do they? So why should lawyers be asked to give free legal advice?
But what I have discovered is that what many people are looking for is not free advice at all. They just want to talk with an attorney about their legal options without having to agree to on-going representation or to sign up for a particular course of action. My term for this kind of advice-giving is “legal counseling”, and, along with mediation, it is the focus of my practice.
Some examples of legal counseling? You are beginning to consider a divorce. You don’t want to start by retaining a divorce attorney – you don’t even know any divorce attorneys! What you want is to explain your particular situation, discuss any major legal obstacles you could run into, and gain a broad perspective of what it all might mean for you, your children and your spouse. “I’m thinking about asking him to move out – can I do that?” “Our children are 12 and 16, will their age have an effect on what the judge will decide about custody?” “I want an attorney who isn’t going to turn my divorce into World War III. Who should I call?” “I want an experienced expert who can talk to my spouse and me about what’s best for the children - who would that be?”
Legal counseling can also be useful in family matters outside of divorce. “We want to adopt a child – what’s the best way to go?” “We're thinking about assisted reproduction – are there things we need to know from a legal standpoint?” “My partner and I live together but aren’t married. Should we put something in writing?” “What about this new domestic partnership law. How does that affect us?”
What I have found is that this type of counseling relationship has the opposite effect of making a call to a litigating attorney: it opens up possibilities rather than closing them down. Options and choices come to light that allow people to create good solutions to their family problems, rather than being forced onto the conveyor belt of court-determined processes. And from a personal point of view, acting as counselor in this way – rather than as a litigator in court - fits comfortably with my philosophy about family conflict. I find it satisfying to explain the law in ways that gives my clients time to reflect before taking action. As a result, they can make better decisions, preserve their important relationships, and use their money to build their future rather than destroy their past.