Seeking better outcomes: Divorce Coaching explored

Since Gwyneth Paltrow announced her split from Coldplay’s Chris Martin in 2014, many separating couples have been seeking a ‘conscious uncoupling’ rather than a ‘marriage breakdown’.  Divorce lawyers have been trying to assist with this admirable aim.  Many have trained as mediators or collaborative professionals in an effort to improve the outcomes – both emotional and financial – for their clients.

And it isn’t only the clients who stand to gain.  The cut and thrust of adversarial family law cases, combined with the enormous level of emotion involved, can place a huge strain on family lawyers. I recall a co-attendee on a collaborative practice course telling me that she was so depressed by her work, that if she couldn’t establish a collaborative practice she would leave the profession.  Meanwhile, last year Resolution reported that 1 in 4 family lawyers were considering leaving the profession[1].

It is therefore of little surprise that there is a new kid on the block when it comes to looking for a ‘new way’ to resolve family issues.  While Divorce Coaching has been around for a while, it has gained prominence in the UK recently, with a number of national publications exploring its use and benefits. I wanted to find out more, so I spoke to Rebecca Bell, a solicitor of 21 years’ experience, who this year left the profession and re-trained as a Divorce Coach.

She explained to me that Divorce Coaching is neither counselling nor legal advice.  A coach provides support, asks questions, never makes assumptions, and helps to prepare the client for the divorce process or to deal with their ex-partner.  “I ask questions: where do you want to be after this process? Will you sell the house? How do you feel about that?”  She recalls a client from her time as a solicitor who, upon seeing her barrister arrive for the FDR hearing, just emotionally fell apart.  “You couldn’t have seen it coming. The reality of it all hit her.  She needed someone to support her”.

I can certainly see a need for this. Clients often present with a range of emotions: fear, feeling powerless, too scared to make a decision, out of their depth, or just very sad.  In my experience clients get more from the legal process – whether making decisions or giving evidence – when they are fully equipped to deal with it.  Lawyers often don’t have the time to prepare clients for what is to come.

I ask Rebecca what are the benefits of Divorce Coaching.  “I help to get their thoughts in order: ‘what matters to you? What do you want from this?’ We explore all the options together.  I can help them prepare the Form E and put together a budget.  Ahead of a final hearing we will discuss how the hearing will run.  I say, go and visit the properties that your ex is suggesting. Coaching can also reduce a client’s legal costs.  I tell them, ‘you can offload onto me, not your lawyer.  Your lawyer will charge you 3 times as much and isn’t qualified to deal with it.’”

Another aim of Divorce Coaching is to give clients the tools to manage the emotions that go alongside the legal process.  This often involves teaching techniques that clients can use at home to help them cope better and make the situation less overwhelming. This helps clients feel more positive, and they are better equipped to deal with the process.

It also works when clients are looking to co-parent.  “We discuss strategies for meeting with their ex, or coping with them at handovers.  We look at how to co-parent, how to be functionally friendly, and reduce their anxiety.  It’s about how to be the better person, and act with integrity”.

I am reminded of the many Children Act cases in which the lawyers have longed to be able to ‘borrow’ a CAFCASS officer for a few hours, to support the parties through the new contact arrangements.  Something akin to the work that a rule 16.4 Guardian can undertake.  I wonder whether perhaps Divorce (or Breakup) Coaching could be the answer that some couples are looking for.

But how does it fit into the court process? Rebecca tells me that not all clients will be going to court, or may not be at that stage yet.  If they are, a coach can support the client in the first introduction to a solicitor, and perhaps attend conferences if desired.  After that the coach works alongside the lawyer, providing support and guidance (but never legal advice).

Rebecca notes that having a collaborative lawyer involved can help enormously, as they would have a deeper understanding of what the client is trying to achieve.  “I prepare people for collaborative or round-table meetings, or for the court process itself.  I help them to face it.  We might discuss ‘what do you feel would be the worst outcome for you?’ If it is something that could happen then I show them, with techniques, how to face the fear and dial down the emotions associated with that feeling.  If it is not likely then it is about showing them how their beliefs are limiting beliefs, which may feel true for them but are not actually the reality.  It is about facing the fear, taking responsibility and dialling down the negative emotions and fears so that the client can control their own future with clarity.”

Would you ever work with a couple? I ask.  Rebecca confirms that while ‘joint’ coaching is possible, ordinarily it is conducted with one client so that their individual needs and concerns can be addressed. Coaching takes place in person or over Zoom, as preferred by the client.

“At the end of the day, friends are not always much use.  If they tell the client ‘you ought to have all of the house and pension’, that may not be realistic in the client’s situation.”  I concur with this: friends have a limit and won’t listen forever.   At the same time, it’s helpful to have someone who can explain the legal procedures and advice that a client might have been given.  “It’s not uncommon for a client to say ‘I don’t know what my lawyer was saying’”.  Or it may be after the final order when they need help: “Clients are often involved with a solicitor and counsel for two years.  Then once the order is made, they are left floundering. The lawyers may assume that they are fine but are they ready to move on?”

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.  So how are clients responding to Divorce Coaching? “One client said that it’s so nice to have clarity and control, and to be reliant on himself.  He recognised that he was waiting around for someone else to dictate what would happen.  He now has a plan and a timeline, and that means that he is dealing with his solicitor better.  He feels he is taking back control.”

So how would lawyers come into contact with Divorce Coaches? Rebecca explains that a client may come along who mentions that they are seeing a coach.  Alternatively, a lawyer who feels that their client needs emotional or practical support could suggest that they explore coaching as a way to assist them through the process.

In this world of remote hearings and telephone conferences, it can seem like access to justice is harder to achieve than ever.  If there is a process by which clients are able to feel more in control and empowered, that can only be a good thing for both lawyers and the court.  And the hope is that will mean better outcomes for the families themselves.  I will watch the growth of Divorce Coaching with real interest.

Many thanks to Rebecca Bell, Divorce Coach, for her input into this article.  Any questions can be directed to her at info@rebeccaobell.co.uk

[1] https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/one-in-four-ready-to-quit-family-law-survey/5108475.article