Building Your Collaborative Practice

Marguerite Picard shares her story of how she moved from adversarial lawyer to collaborative lawyer. And what drove her to establish the Collaborative Practice, MELCA in partnership with Collaborative Financial Planner, Patricia Peters and Family Consultant, Dr Tina Sinclair.



Transcript below

(HOST) I’m Wallace Long. Welcome to Collaborative Conversations, a podcast that looks into the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice approach for separating couples. 

In this episode, I speak with a collaborative lawyer, Marguerite Picard.  Marguerite shares how she moved from adversarial lawyer to collaborative lawyer, and what drove her to establish in partnership with collaborative financial planner, TRICIA PETERS and family consultant, DR TINA SINCLAIR,  the collaborative practice, MELCA.

This episode is must listen for professionals looking to establish their own collaborative practice. 

Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice is a process where, in conjunction with each party’s lawyer, couples work alongside professionals who bring the skills required to resolve each family’s unique situation in an efficient, respectful and dignified way. 

The Collaborative Conversations Podcast is brought to you by the Australian Association of Collaborative Professionals. 

Marguerite, welcome. 

(MARGUERITE) Thank you, Wallace. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

(HOST) Thank you so much for joining me today. Marguerite, for the past 10 years, you’ve been a director in a practice that has embraced interdisciplinary collaborative practice, to assist couples who are separating. Can you describe the work you do now compared to 10 years ago? 

(MARGUERITE)  Yes, I guess the work that I do now is very different from the work I did 10 years ago. My background is as a litigation practitioner, and if cases weren’t going to court, they were certainly being settled in an adversarial mindset.

What I’m doing now is really looking at people’s story, aiming to resolve their conflict, helping my clients to see the perspective of the other person, trying to guard against intergenerational trauma by taking care of the impact on children. And, so that’s a very different way of looking at family separation from what happens in litigation. And one of the things that I really love about the way that I work now in collaborative practice, is not only that, I’m part of a team made up of psychologists, child psychologists and financial planners, but that I actually get to meet the other person. So normally, if you are acting for your own client in a litigation setting, perhaps you spot the other person on the other side of a courtroom. In this situation, I get to sit around a table with both parties and the understanding and the compassion and the humanity of being able to do that is probably the greatest difference between litigation and collaboration. 

(HOST) What do you see as the benefits for separating couples in using an Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice approach? 

(MARGUERITE) I think the greatest difference between working in this way and working in regular models of practice is that really what we’re doing and what people are able to do is see their separation as a life transition moment, not an endpoint. To also be given support in understanding that their emotional needs are really front and centre. For most people, there is some law involved, there are some financial consequences, but that’s not what’s keeping them awake at night. Their fears, their anxiety, not knowing where to turn in that sense and experience of chaos is something that we’re really able to support and address with an interdisciplinary team and build a safe envelope around a whole family. And the focus is on the whole family, not just on one partner or the other. And it’s really bringing the children’s concerns as the focus point for the whole family. If there are young children in particular, but even adult children who are typically ignored in the mainstream are taken into account as part of the whole family story in collaboration. So I think it’s a very much more whole process. It’s safer, it’s more comfortable. It doesn’t ramp up conflict, it reduces it. And it gets to something that’s beyond just legal settlement, because all cases settle eventually one way or another, with all without a judge. But this is actually about resolution, which is much deeper than settlement. It’s about really trying to resolve what’s been going on in the couple dynamic, as well as the practical fallout of a separation. 

(HOST) Marguerite, how do you screen people and identify those that are suitable for ICP?

(MARGUERITE) That’s an interesting question, and it’s one that gets a lot of airplay internationally. I think it’s really important for professionals who work in this area to have an understanding and for there to be an engagement in discussion about. When we created MELCA in 2010, we did so on the basis that we were screening people in and not out. So if we screen people out for the usual reasons that happen because perhaps there’s urgency, family violence, power imbalances. There’s no real consideration about where people are being screened to and what actual supports they’re getting for health issues, mental health issues, family violence, alcohol, drugs and other dependencies. None of those things are addressed. So what we do in collaborative practice is to say, come and meet us, meet the interdisciplinary team and let us discuss with you as a couple what you need individually and as a couple to be successful in getting to the other side of your separation. And mostly that’s about working with the interdisciplinary team. But it’s also about the wider circle of people with whom we work. So they are people like divorce coaches, people who can provide individual therapy, people in holistic medicine, etcetera. So it’s seeing people as having far greater needs than just their legal needs. 

(HOST) Marguerite, what do you see as the benefits for professionals who work within the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice framework? 

(MARGUERITE) That’s a really interesting question. I suppose I can mostly base my response on how it was for me. But when I left my old practise, I was ready to leave law, and the reason for that was that I found working in an adversarial setting was really anathema to my personal values. And what the psychologists would often say about this is that you develop an awareness of the dissonance that creates within yourself when you’re working every day in a way that’s not aligned with your values or your personality. So that’s a really big thing for me. I think developing self-awareness, understanding who you are, what your own triggers are, what your own conflict style is, and what you might bring that’s advantageous to collaborative practice is something that everybody needs to think a lot about. The advantages to me is that it meant I can work in a way that I like working. I can bring my best skills and I can work with people who share my values, and that’s much broader than just staying out of the court system, but actually bringing a whole new thinking about recognition of conflict, being able to sit in the fire of conflict with your clients and being able to help them manage that and create actual transformation in many cases. But in some cases perhaps not transformation, but getting through to the other side of separation without damaging what’s left of what was ever good. 

(HOST) So what makes a professional well suited to ICP? 

(MARGUERITE) I’d say anyone who’s open to changing the way they’ve practised. Anyone who has in the past question the way they practise. I think that’s probably speaking for lawyers. For people from the counselling and psychological professions, I think there are people who have worked with couples whether they’re separating or not, but have an understanding of couples dynamics. For child psychologists who have worked within the family law system, I know that many of the child psychologists with whom I work say, ‘if I’m an expert witness down there at the family court, I have absolutely missed the opportunity to do constructive work for the family’, because you are tending to stand in a judging arbitral role when you’re the expert witness about what families should do after separation. Whereas if you can work early with families, then you can do something that’s constructive. There can be lots of parent education, so it’s people who really have a deep interest in preserving relationships for their clients, even if those relationships look different at the end of a separation from what they look at the beginning. 

(HOST) You mentioned MELCA. You formed that practice in 2010 with two business partners, Tricia Peters and Dr Tina Sinclair. Can you tell me how that came about? 

(MARGUERITE) Yes, it’s interesting. A lot of people think that we had all known each other for many years and we had certainly known each other for several years before we formed the business. And I remember an occasion where I was sitting at an international conference. I think it was in with Tricia, and we said to each other in that conference, would be great to set up an interdisciplinary collaborative practice. She’d had some experience being trained where the people who were trained didn’t really understand what her role might be and to be quite honest, nor did I, because I hadn’t worked in an interdisciplinary way, but I was very attracted to it. I thought, okay, give me a few years. 

But anyway, it didn’t take as many as a few years. By 2009, which formed MELCA with Dr Tina Sinclair, and I guess it was a meeting of minds. We’d all worked with families in separation one way or another for many years of our professional lives, and we could all see the problems and the defects. And we just started to feel that we were speaking the same language and I was really keen for change and they were keen for change. So we said OK, let’s work out how we can work. But instead of just kind of accidentally creating something together, we said about it in a very intentional design thinking way, with very clear aims and goals about what it was that we wanted to do. And fortunately, probably because by then we had about 100 year’s collective experience, we were able to do that. And I would say to this day, it’s one of the great serendipitous moments of my career to have met these two women who have unmatchable skills in their area, and for us to have been able to create something together has been the most amazing professional moment of my life. So I’m grateful for that and the fact that I met these two people who had the same attitude and ideas as I did both about practice, separating families and, the creation of a business. 

(HOST) Marguerite, what does that look like day-to-day for the three of you?

(MARGUERITE) Well sadly for us it now means that Tina has gone to live and work in Canada. She’s created a similar business in Calgary called Peacemakers for Families. 

But on the ground, back here in Australia for Tricia and me, what it looks like is that we still have our original office in Hawthorn in Melbourne. But in 2021 we’ve been able to open regional offices in Victoria, in Gippsland and the Mornington Peninsula. And we’ve also opened offices in Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide.

And one of the important parts of our model is that in each of these cities and areas, clients are working directly with local practitioners. 

(HOST) Marguerite, can you tell me more about the MELCA Model?

(MARGUERITE) So we have a five step model of practice. It starts off with us providing information to our clients. We really try to do that for both parties, both halves of the couple at the same time, so that they’re hearing the same information from the same place at the same time. And our next step is that we have our clients meet the professional team. And with their permission, the team shares what we learn in that discovery session so that we can help to decide and make recommendations for our clients about how they can be helped and who would need to help them to get to a settlement. And we then do foundational work, which is a lot about financial gathering, budget work, etcetera, working with the children and the child psychologist working on communication, end of relationship, work, and goal setting work. And then, at that point, we’ve probably done 60% of the work we ever do with our clients, and we then say, now it looks like the time when you can sit down around a table and negotiate. And one of the things that’s quite different for us from anywhere else in the world is we’re likely to have one or two negotiation meetings, and internationally, we continue to hear stories about people having half a dozen or 10 meetings and still not reaching settlement for their clients. And we think our case management and our process and our foundational work are really key to us being able to provide that kind of success for our clients. And of course, once they reach their settlements, their legal documents are drawn up by the lawyers in the case in the same way as anywhere else. We also provide a fixed price for our clients. 

It’s bespoke that each family we pay all of the professionals at the same rate, which came as quite a shock to a lot of the lawyers when we first started MELCA because this wasn’t about elevating everybody else’s fees to the lawyer’s fees. It was about reduction of the lawyer’s fees to meet something that we felt was more reasonable for clients, and we have followed that model ever since, and I think it’s really attractive for clients to have a fixed price so that they know where they are, they’re not anxious about every contact with their lawyer or other team member. We honestly and genuinely value the role of each of the professionals equally. That’s why we pay them equally. And that’s not some kind of a PR stunt. It’s because we absolutely see every professional on the case is providing equal value, even though their skills are different and the role they take in each case might be different in terms of its waiting. That’s some of what we do at MELCA each day. 

(HOST) Marguerite, how many professionals would now be involved with MELCA? 

(MARGUERITE) Quite a number. Over the years, all of those we have trained and have joined the community probably number somewhere around 50 or 60. We run a practice group, which is for continuing professional development. We meet monthly with those professionals. That’s a really exciting opportunity for interdisciplinary learning and exchange. We really encourage all of our members to be an active part of that, and we find that those who really embrace that aspect of our practice are much more the ones who are likely to be doing cases, because it’s really about conviction I guess.

(HOST) Your tagline for MELCA is compassion, collaboration and compromise. What are the values of the organisation? 

(MARGUERITE) Pretty much those. Compassion, because that’s what everybody who’s separating needs. And I think one of the things that quite often happens in adversarial law and in conversations amongst lawyers is that there’s a lot of judgement attributed to people’s behaviour. And one of the wonderful things for me as a lawyer working with psychologists is that I have a much better understanding of what’s driving a person’s behaviour. So we’re much less likely to be judgmental, were able to see the humanity in people, have much more compassion for the dysfunction in the relationship that’s occurred and what the practical implications of that are for people. So we’re really clear about that at MELCA that the people who work for all of the businesses under our roof have a clear understanding of what those values are, and we model that behaviour in our conversations when we’re not actually working directly with our clients. Compromise is one of the things that people have to do in any form of negotiation, constructive compromise, not compromise that comes from avoidance of conflict, for example, and excellence. We want it to be very clear that all of the professionals of whom we work are excellent in their own right. And excellence in outcome and process for us is something we value really highly because we know that clients often experience a lot of mystique around what happens in a legal process. They don’t feel that they are informed. They don’t feel they are a participator. Quite often they feel like they’re a bystander. That certainly happens in litigation, and it often happens in mediation where people aren’t as supported as they are in a collaboration. And we knew from the beginning that that was something that we wanted people to have some self-determination and generally the sense that whatever else had happened in their life that was sad, disruptive and whatever sense of loss they brought to it, at least the process and the people they worked with were excellent.

(HOST) thinking about professionals that would be interested in establishing an Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice. What do you recommend they focus on and what should they look out for?

(MARGUERITE) I think thing to focus on is an absolute conviction about the practice that you want to build, and for me it would be a really amazing thing if there were more practices in Australia, so that when people went looking for how they could get through a separation or divorce, collaborative practice would come up front and centre, rather than being something which is a little bit hidden, which happens to be the case right now. So being prepared to be really authentic and convinced about what it is that you’re doing. I think some of the hurdles are really about finding other people with whom you can build your business. So as a lawyer, what I found when I started out was that the law societies were not helpful to me. The insurers were not helpful to me and they more or less said, jump off the cliff and, not that will be at the bottom with our ambulance but we’ll be at the bottom with penalties if we find that you have somehow breached any kind of regulation. So that wasn’t very welcoming. But I decided to do it anyway with the best intentions and highest standard of ethics, and that’s what I did. So I didn’t find help, actually from my profession. I think it may be slightly different, but each profession faces a paradigm shift and has some ethical discussions that they need to have. 

But what I think has been central to MELCA’s success and the power of our message is that we were founded by the three disciplines, finance, law and psychology, and I think that tells people a big story. But nonetheless, what I would really like to see is people setting up collaborative practices who aren’t lawyers, the psychologists and financial planners and councillors. And for them to feel they are on an absolutely equal footing with lawyers because, I think to date they probably haven’t felt that, and to understand that all of the professions can be gatekeepers for people. And perhaps the financial planners, for example, aren’t going to intersect with as many separating people as family lawyers, obviously, and counselling psychologists are going to but nonetheless having a process having a group that you work with and whether that’s described as a business or not. But I think having a business has huge power in it, because the nature of having three directors in our case gives you responsibilities and running your business in a way which means that you’re very focused on what you’re doing, and the success of that, I think, has huge benefits for clients. I think somebody who’s convinced that this is a great idea and wants to offer this as one of the options to people when they are separating is the kind of person who can run a successful business. And maybe you have to be a bit of a dreamer. Creative, maybe a risk taker, but I think that’s true for any entrepreneur. 

(HOST) Marguerite, since establishing MELCA, what have been the highlights for you? 

(MARGUERITE) That’s a big question. Well, because we have evolved rather than having had a revolution after the start, I think that’s been really exciting, from a business perspective. Our model has evolved over that time to the current five step model, that’s been a wonderful thing. Seeing ourselves really as part of a life transition for people and being able to manage conflict and seeing our clients go away and saying things like, ‘I’m smiling, I haven’t done that for six months. I wish everybody knew about this process.’ Those kind of comments, and to understand that you’ve really been able to change some lives, or at least prevent people from having damage, has been a highlight. But for me, I think the fact that as a lawyer I was only ever accustomed to hearing one side of the story and understanding people’s narrative and story has another half, developing perspective and the ability to coach my own clients to try to develop some of that, as the best way to resolve conflict and to actually resolve issues rather than avoiding conflict and skimming over the surface, to the point where we can quickly write some legal documents and seeing our job is done. So it’s a much deeper process, and for me, that has been professionally, incredibly rewarding. 

(HOST) Marguerite, if a professional was looking for further information on Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice. Where would they go? 

(MARGUERITE) Well, we have an international body, its acronym is the IACP – International Academy of Collaborative Professionals . The Australian, the AACP – Australian Association of Collaborative Professionals , and the various state bodies. So they would be the places that I would go to look for assistance and guidance, and most of those places will have lists of practitioners and the ability to contact the organisations directly to understand about training and maybe some mentoring opportunities and an opportunity to have discussions with people who run these kind of practices every day, should be available. 

(HOST) And if they wanted to get in contact with you?

(MARGUERITE)  If they want to get in contact with me, they’re very welcome to jump onto our website MELCA, , or to email me or to contact me through the VACP website, which is the Victorian Association. 

(HOST) Marguerite, thanks so much for your time today. 

(MARGUERITE) Thanks, Wallace. It’s been a real pleasure, as always, to speak about interdisciplinary practice. And I thank you.