Marguerite Picard says a more holistic approach can help remove the bitterness, acrimony and crippling costs from divorce.
MOST couples that marry believe they are a match made in heaven. But so often they end up in hell. As many as one in three Australian marriages dissolve in divorce. Connubial bliss gives way to conflict, to bitterness. Love is lost, acrimony reigns.
The route to separation is painful enough, but things get even worse in many cases when it comes time for the mechanics of divorce. And the emotional costs are merely amplified by the financial ones.
Even couples who seek a civilised settlement can end up mired in a monetary shit-fight as their lawyers, shackled by the rules and rituals of our adversarial legal system, don their litigation armour and wage war over the root of all evil.
Monstrous misery abounds, and none suffers more than the children, even though the Family Court has tried hard to protect them from the worst of the battle.
So many must have lamented the lack of a less traumatic final chapter to the matrimonial opus that opened with such tenderness.
Well, there is a better way, and Marguerite Picard, a lawyer and former litigator with around 30 years of experience, is here in The Zone to explain how families can avoid much of the horror - and tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars. She sees divorce as an emotional situation with legal implications, rather than vice versa.
''That's where what we're doing is really different, because when you're a lawyer working within the litigation world or negotiating in the shadow of the court, necessarily you are talking about the legal consequences as being central. And you aren't in a position, actually, to care for the emotional consequences for people.
''I had tried as a litigator and negotiator to work in a way that was holistic as possible, and many of my clients worked with psychologists outside of the process, but there was no integration between what I was doing and the therapeutic support they were having outside. And often there was a real disjunction there and it didn't work.''
What's working for Picard and her partners and their clients is creating multidisciplinary teams. Divorcing couples, and their children, should there be any, are provided, in the one place, with legal, psychological and financial services. Their practice, established last year in suburban Melbourne, is unique in Australia. There are many other lawyers using collaboration and mediation, but what sets Picard's pack apart is the multidisciplinary element.
''One of the things that's different about our collaborative centre from centres in other parts of the world is that part of what we do is to intake the whole family. We provide information about the process to both halves of the couple or to both parents at the beginning and we also work with the psychologists and communication coach and financial specialists and child specialists.
''We do a lot of work, four or five or six hours, upfront at no cost to our clients. The reason that we do that is to give us an understanding of what they need, and it's very much about us listening to them about why they have they approached us and what they need. And that's different for all families. It's going to depend on the financial well-being of the family, on the age and stage of children. And the reason that we need all that information upfront is so that we can we can then proceed to offer a fixed price to our clients …
''One of the first tasks that we do in our first joint meeting is we ask our clients to articulate goals. We put them up a whiteboard and they are repeated every time we have a meeting with that family or that couple.''
The cost of a divorce through the courts typically ranges from $60,000 to $130,000, says this woman of so many years experience in the traditional system. That's for each party, meaning half the value of the family home can go on legal fees. That does not mean the lawyers are being greedy, it's just the way things have evolved.
Picard's way costs up to $30,000 for the entire family and tends to take less time than going through the courts. Costs are controlled in a number of ways: there's not the expensive inner-city office; all the work is done face-to-face, meaning none of those extra billable hours lawyers clock up as they haggle and deal with court bureaucracy.
''Our clients have universally been happy. We've had clients express to us that they've learnt skills they didn't have before, that their family is in better shape than it was before, and that they may not need help with small issues that are going to come up in implementing agreements, for example, because they've learnt how to communicate in a way that they hadn't before. So from a client's perspective it's delivering everything that I could ever have hoped and felt that I was unable to deliver in litigation.''
Marguerite Picard suffered guilt, angst even, and certainly frustration as a highly paid, city-based litigator. People were paying huge sums for unsatisfactory outcomes. Her deepening darkness drove her towards mediation training several years ago. But something was still missing. ''It was an epiphany moment when I learnt about collaborative practice. This was the thing that I had been working towards in my head, but I didn't know it had a name and I didn't know it was actually there.
''And it absolutely is common sense and I think that all of our clients feel that it's common sense and that the one-stop shop, if you like, approach makes an enormous difference to people's sense of making order out of chaos.''
It does sound like common sense. Even so, I'm sceptical in our interview (see the full transcript online). After all, we're talking about charged, often nasty situations where, surely, goals are not often shared.
''One of the things that builds the acrimony and the chaos for people is getting into litigation or into an adversarial system where lawyers might not actually be litigating for their clients, but they're nonetheless negotiating within an adversarial paradigm. And it's only when you step outside of that that people can actually start to talk about the things that matter to them instead of the law.''
It's the things that matter that tend to be shared, even in the depths of anger.
''It's almost a universal experience that people will be saying the well-being of their children is really important. Some kind of harmony or peace in their own marital relationship will also be a goal that most people will aspire to. And then below that will be things about financial independence and an ability for everyone to be OK financially.''
In legal terms, Picard's practice delivers the same outcome as the prevailing system. The same documents are drawn up. Financial agreements are codified. Child support is set. Custody arrangements are cemented. ''The nature of the legal settlement is as watertight and is as effective as in any other process.''
The idea is taking hold. There have even been reconciliations between couples who were bent on divorce. Picard and her partners are fielding requests from other professionals. So they are training lawyers and non-lawyers - the psychologists, financial planners, child specialists and other counsellors.
Marguerite Picard has found peace for herself. She radiates the calmness that comes when one finally confronts demons, in this case professional ones, and rejects an imposed status quo.
Breaking apart is not a joyful process, but there's now at least an option that appears to be generating some peace and harmony from the separation cesspit.
Perhaps she has discovered legal and emotional alchemy. ''I think this is actually the gold standard of practice. And I'm waiting for other people to follow.''
It just might be the yellow brick road out of hell.