Frances Merritt isn’t a typical divorce lawyer — adversarial, fighting to win the best deal for the client without due consideration to the needs of the entire family. Rather, she is a leader in the relatively new field of collaborative law.

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 was a co-founder of the Mid-Jersey Collaborative Law Alliance, which now boasts more than 30 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 not to “win big” for one client but to optimize the resolution for the entire 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 issues resolved, but we have to maintain whatever is left of the communication between the parents,” Merritt says, “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. The collaborative team calls in financial or mental health experts as needed and agreed to by the parties to work out certain aspects of the settlement, and the timing of the process is more flexible and often results in quicker resolution than formal litigation. In one case, the couple were working abroad in Bolivia, and the settlement was worked out during the one week they were home in New Jersey. In the end, the collaborative process is usually less expensive and is certainly less emotionally damaging than 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 someone. I think it’s going to become very popular here in central New Jersey as it has in many parts of the country already.”

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

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