Putting the Brakes on Conflict: Barry University law students and nonlawyer professionals drive "neutral" divorce clinic.

Author:Brown, Jessica
 
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Her days a blur of caring for and shuttling around her four school-aged children and working fulltime as a receptionist at a car dealership, Tisha Lopez, 36, had few spare moments to research the process of filing for a divorce--but she needed one.

She heard the horror stories of bitterness and fighting, of spouses who wanted to make each other's lives miserable, and worried about the cost. One divorce attorney had quoted her $3,000, and she didn't know how she could come up with that much money, even in installments.

She considered doing the paperwork herself.

"The packet is huge, and you don't want to mess up on that packet," Lopez said. "It was overwhelming just looking at it. There was no way. I didn't even know how to get started."

When Lopez mentioned the hurdles she faced to a friend who had recently graduated from Barry University School of Law, he suggested she apply to Barry's Collaborative Family Law Clinic, (1) which is based on a new, law student-driven pro bono model for handling divorce cases. Their approach seeks to minimize conflict and achieve the best outcome for the family as a whole. The clinic helps couples divorce in a nonlitigious atmosphere, guided by an interdisciplinary team. Each semester, it takes on two pro bono cases for clients who meet income requirements.

Opened in 2014, the clinic is only the second of its type in the country after Loyola Law School's clinic in California. (2) Barry University Dean and Professor of Law Letitia Diaz, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Ruth Witherspoon, Professor of Law Marsha Freeman, Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida Associate Administrative Judge Alice Blackwell, Teresa Parnell, a licensed psychologist and Florida Supreme Court-certified mediator, and attorney Brenda London collaborated and planned for two years to create the clinic. London agreed to serve as director and become an adjunct law professor, stepping away from her family law practice one day each week to teach collaborative law and oversee the clinic.

To Lopez, it sounded too good to be true. In the span of less than two months, with just two on-site meetings, she could have a signed divorce agreement. Not only would the clinic provide free legal representation, but she and her husband would be guided by a mental health "neutral," a financial neutral, and case managers.

"I really liked the fact that they were trying to make things as fair as possible for both of us," Lopez said.

Through the...

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