Frances Merritt is a leader in the relatively new dispute resolution process of collaborative law, a process of resolving divorce matters out of court and in a way that is less emotionally destructive and less costly than the traditional adversarial divorce model.

Since graduating from Rutgers Law School, Merritt has dedicated her legal career to family law. Early on she was “dissatisfied with the toxicity and lack of civility” that often characterize divorce litigation. So, she says, she saw a life-line in the mid-1990s when she learned about the emerging fields of mediation and collaborative law. She now runs her own practice in Lawrenceville emphasizing alternatives to divorce resolution without litigation. In March 2009, she became the founding president of the Mid-Jersey Collaborative Law Alliance, which now boasts more than 50 collaboratively trained professionals in law, finance and mental health.

With the collaborative process, both sides are brought to the table under an agreement that the divorce will be settled out of court and that new lawyers would have to take over the case were litigation deemed necessary to settle the divorce. Collaborative law differs from mediation in that there are lawyers on both sides rather than a neutral mediator bringing the sides together. Nonetheless, Merritt says, the objective in either process is to optimize the resolution of the matter for the entire family by assisting the parties to develop options and by guiding them to make their own decisions about what is best for the family.

“Counsel are trained to promote integrity and respect between the parties,” she says. “We discuss behavioral guidelines at the beginning so that if the conversation deteriorates we can remind ourselves of how it is we will be speaking with one another so it doesn’t dissolve into bickering.” The result, she says, is a calmer, less stressful, and less adversarial process that emphasizes problem-solving over positional bargaining.

“A position is only one possible solution to any one problem,” she says, “but the collaborative counsel together help the parties to develop options for resolution so they can then self-determine which is the best one for the whole family.”

The self-determination involved is one of the great benefits Merritt sees in collaborative law. “You are empowering the parties to make their own decisions, of course with the advice of counsel with regard to the law,” she says. “Because the parties are fully participating, the agreements that result are more long-lasting and binding.”

This, in turn, makes collaborative law especially useful in cases involving children. “We not only have to get the issues resolved, but we work to promote better communication and cooperation between the parents,” says Merritt, “because the children are caught in the middle, and this process of dispute resolution very clearly ameliorates that.”

Another tangible benefit of collaborative law is economic inasmuch as statistics show that the cost of a collaborative divorce is substantially less than that of traditional litigation. Other advantages are, first, that the collaborative counsel have access to skilled, collaboratively trained financial, mental health and other experts who are added as agreed by the parties to the collaborative “team” as needed to work out certain aspects of the settlement and, second, that the timing of the process is more flexible and often results in quicker resolution than the typical litigation process. These advantages contribute in the end to making the collaborative process usually less expensive and certainly less emotionally damaging the traditional divorce proceedings.

Merritt acknowledges that divorce litigation will never be eliminated, especially in special circumstances such as cases involving domestic violence, unusual issues that need to be tested by a court, or where the parties either cannot or do not wish to negotiate directly with their spouses. Nevertheless, she says, “it is our goal to add collaborative law to the menu of options for parties who have decided that divorce is inevitable. It is already becoming very popular here in central New Jersey as it has throughout the United States and in other countries.”

Frances M. Merritt, attorney/mediator. 40 Stonicker Drive, Lawrenceville. 609-895-1717; fax, 609-895-1727. Frances M. Merritt, owner. See ad, page 10.

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