Ep. 2: Heidi Webb of Consilium Divorce Consultations

Heidi Webb is a lawyer with a background in mediation, collaborative law and the traditional litigation practice, as well as a masters degree from Harvard where she focused on counseling and consulting psychology. Her business, Consilium Divorce Consultations, has helped hundreds of clients with legal advice, life planning strategies, and emotional, financial, and logistical support through the critical life transition of divorce. She and her husband have three children and an aging and much loved dog.

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Episode Transcript:

Rackham:

Welcome to the ADR Initiative. This is the podcast where you'll hear from successful mediators, arbitrators, collaborative law attorneys, coaches, and other alternative dispute resolution professionals about what they do, how they got here, and valuable lessons they've learned along the way. I'm you host Rackham Karlsson. Today, I'm talking with Heidi Webb. Heidi is a lawyer with a background in mediation, collaborative law, and the traditional litigation practice as well as a master's degree from Harvard, where she focused on counseling and consulting psychology. Her business, Consilium Divorce Consultations, has helped hundreds of clients with legal advice, life planning strategies, and emotional, financial, and logistical support through the critical life transition of divorce. She and her husband have three children, and an aging and much loved dog. Welcome to the show, Heidi.

Heidi:

Thanks so much, Rackham. I'm pleased to be here.

Rackham:

I'm so happy to have you here, and I just want to jump right in because of course, that intro only scratches the surface of what you do. Can you flesh that out a bit? Tell us a little bit more about what you do and your journey to where you are today.

Heidi:

Sure. It seemed to me, having approached the family law terrain from a few different perspectives, that there was a juncture that the traditional process, the collaborative process, mediation, arbitration… it really didn't address. That was the very, very initial stage, when people were either paralyzed with fear, feeling angry, betrayed, a variety of emotions, but really ill-equipped to make rational decisions… They found themselves in a position of making perhaps one of the most important decisions of their lives, financially, legally, relative to their children, their future, and their emotional well-being when they were really, really vulnerable. That seemed terribly unfair to me, that people didn't have a place where they could process all that information and sort of have a filtering system and somebody who could give them a mirror back into what was going on for them.

I decided to create a practice that would do exclusively that, that would really help people at that very initial juncture understand both the context of what they were approaching and the content. In other words, what the law would provide for them or require of them, what their rights and responsibilities would be under the law, and also what these various playing fields look like. What's the difference? This is language that lawyers sort of take for granted. I'm forever having clients call me and saying, "You know, my husband filed a complaint," when really their husband maybe retained a lawyer. There are subtleties that as lawyers, we distinguish really clearly — that this is a very different sort of place somebody might be at in the process, but as someone who's approaching it, it's almost like you get on a plane and you land in the middle of Rome and you don't speak Italian, and all of a sudden you're just told, “If you want to go see the Coliseum, start walking.”

There needed to be some guideposts for people. That was part of what I decided I'd do and along that sort of evolution, I developed a variety of ways of working with people in order to facilitate their own thought process through this journey that they were about to embark on. For lawyers who I work with, or mediators, they receive from me a very detailed analysis of the case. They tell me that it puts them six to eight months down the road, because they have some context as well of the client's goals, expectations, and priorities. So instead of sort of discovering as they go, they have a bit of a framework to begin, as well.

Rackham:

I can say that from experience, Heidi, having worked with you before, those synopses that you send out are so valuable in getting to know the client initially, getting some basic information about them, and then really being able to hit the ground and start providing the most value to them rather than having to through that initial exploratory stage in as much depth as you would otherwise need to.

Heidi:

I'm glad to hear that from you as well. I think that the other thing it allows clients is not to have to repeat their story, because it's exhausting. So, when they come in and they tell lawyer number one their story, and lawyer number one seems nice, seems capable from as much information as they have — “they” the sort of hypothetical “they” person — they just wanted to hire somebody, so that is sometimes what people do and then three or four months down the road, they'd say, "Wait a second. I didn't understand it was going to be like this, or I didn't understand this is what litigation was, or the traditional process meant, or how come I can't talk to my husband's lawyer?" There are all sorts of things that are misunderstandings because they didn't really understand the process in the beginning.

By being able to sort of interview a variety of people up front, they can develop a more nuanced understanding of what different providers would give them, so they can then ... you know, their emotions get a little bit less intense, their questions get clearer, they begin to be able to distill things more rationally, and they can sort of come back and process with us the various information they have and make an informed decision.

Rackham:

That's great. One thing that I understand about your business, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that one of the things that you help people do is to choose which process is right for them, whether it's mediation, or collaborative law, or litigation. You're very involved in the ADR field and you refer often to ADR practitioners, but am I right in understanding that you also… If you see a case that's appropriate for litigation, you say, "I really think that you should go talk to this person who's a very skilled litigator?”

Heidi:

Yes. And sometimes, even the word litigation can sound awfully harsh. I guess I know we call this field alternative dispute resolution, but I guess I see it all as dispute resolution. This is not so much an alternative as in contrast to the traditional process or what we often call litigation, but it's a different avenue. I think there are times that I look at that, that English contract law is the construct for divorce, and think, oh my lord, why are we using this and superimposing it on a family in 2016? We have so much more information psychologically, and there are so many other ways that we can inform decisions about children and their best interests, and yet we're using this really old model and that makes no sense.

There are other times that there's physical abuse or violence in the home or a restraining order is needed immediately. There are circumstances that absolutely dictate that we need to get into court and this family needs some protection, and that may be a time that I would recommend it. I also think there are times that really artful and skilled negotiators, who also practice in the traditional way, can be appropriate hires for people with the sort of traditional process in the background. So there's not an expectation particularly that you're going to end up in court other than with a mediated agreement or a negotiated agreement, but it may be negotiated without your presence because, for a variety of reasons, that may be a choice that somebody wants to make.

Rackham:

That's so true and it happens with me also that I have somebody in my office and we're talking about their situation and I learn that there's some kind of power imbalance. Maybe it's abuse — physical abuse or emotional abuse — and I tell them, because my practice is only out of court, only mediation or collaborative law, and I tell them, "I'm not the right attorney for you. It's not that I don't think this could be negotiated out of court, but I would want you to have an attorney who could protect you in court instantly if you needed it."

Heidi:

Exactly. Exactly, so it's having done this for a long time, and sometimes it's just really obvious to all of us that this is a litigation case. Sometimes it's more subtle, but it seems that based on either personality, history, power imbalance, lots of reasons… access to finances, international complexities, I mean there are reasons that might dictate that the traditional process is the way to go.

Rackham:

Yeah, now you mentioned starting with what you do, and then getting back to the journey. Getting back to that journey, you mentioned you have a background in family law. Can you talk about that a bit more? How did you come to where you are today?

Heidi:

Sure. I had done my master's in education and psychology before going to law school, so I always had an orientation in that direction and was always sort of between becoming a psychologist and a lawyer, and not knowing quite what I wanted to choose, I guess. In the end, I came from a family of lawyers. I chose law. It seemed like a good choice for me for lots of reasons and I actually ended up practicing law with my dad for ten years. When I started that practice, I knew that the practice he had wasn't the practice that I wanted, although he was excited to have me join the practice, and also wanted to give me the latitude to do what I wanted to do. He said, at the outset, "I want you to go through the paces of everything else and sort of learn about estate work, and learn about injury, and learn about malpractice defense, and learn about real estate, and sort of have a broad swath of understanding. Then, after you do that for a couple of years, if that's what you really want to do is family law, we'll set you up in a practice to be able to do that."

Having mediated through law school, actually, with an organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts  called the Children's Hearings Project, I sort of had developed skill around that and incorporated that early on into my practice, and then really settled into a pretty traditional family law litigation/negotiation/mediation model, hybrid of sorts, and practiced that way for many years. At a certain point, I guess around child number three, it seemed to me that this was really not a lifestyle that was sustainable in terms of keeping a court calendar and also being at the nursery school when I wanted to be there. So I started rethinking for myself what I could do that would give added value to clients that I didn't really want to step away from entirely, but also, would give me a little bit more flexibility in terms of my own lifestyle.

I started thinking of what these missing pieces were, which I talked earlier, in terms of what I look at the grand puzzle here, is there any piece that I see missing. That was the piece that I began to focus on and develop a theory and curriculum and work around, and really then started developing my own practice around the Consilium process, which I later named and copyrighted it, service marked.

Rackham:

I think you really hit on something important there which is when we talk about ADR, or just dispute resolution, whatever you want to call it, a lot of the focus is on how does this benefit the clients? Why is it better for the clients? But every ADR practitioner I've spoken with is very quick to talk about the benefits to them: the flexibility in their own scheduling, not being beholden to the court's docket, being able to spend more time with family. The one concern I do hear from people who are still in the litigation trenches is, will I still be able to pay the bills? Can you speak to that?

Heidi:

Yeah. Well, it takes a while. I was fortunate in that I had the ability to spend a couple of years, probably where I wouldn't have been able to if I'd been self-supporting, but I was at a juncture in my own life where I could do that. It takes the commitment to really develop a financial model that is workable, and I think you have to sort of know what that is, and that's really a business decision in terms of sitting back and saying, what are my benchmarks? What do I want to earn from this enterprise? What am I willing to do and how do I value my time, and how can I sort of put that together a product that is deliverable to somebody, that gives added value. It's sort of all those mechanisms together to really develop something that is marketable and provides you with a living. That's sort of how I came to that.

Rackham:

You've put together something that really works for people, but of course, some of the biggest lessons that we learn are from the mistakes that we make. Can you speak to any one big mistake that you made in the process of building your business and what you learned from it?

Heidi:

I think having assumptions is always a bad thing, even with people who sort of define their own practice as mediation practice, or collaborative law practice, or a litigator, litigation practice. You know really getting to know people and understand how they deploy the skill that they've identified, sort of externally, in a box, is really important. I think at the outset I was trying to develop my own ... you know, I work with many, many lawyers and in order for me to refer my clients to people, I wanted to have mechanisms sort of like the Harry Potter sorting hat. I needed to know where I was sending people and what that looked like.

That, for me, is everything from seeing people's offices, to knowing what their support staff's like. You know, it was just a lot of groundwork watching people in court, if they're litigators. I spent a lot of time in those very early years, doing everything from going to people's offices, going to court and watching people, really trying to get to know people on a more personal level, and understand the more nuances to their personalities as well as their practice styles, and what their staff was like, and how responsive they'd be, and how deep they went. There are times it's fine to send someone to a really small office and there are other times that I realize a case is going to need a lot of ... be heavy in terms of paperwork and need the staff to support it. I guess it was becoming really clear in my own mind about what those ... I think part of my process is breaking down silos and part of it is creating it, if that makes sense. It's breaking down the contextual and intellectual silos between psychology and law and sort of merging this practice and making it more holistic, but in order to do that, I had to identify what those component pieces were, in order to put them back together differently.

Rackham:

Is there a particular time, that you can think of, when you got that wrong, that you really learned from along the way?

Heidi:

Yes, but I think it was with clients more than with lawyers. That was assuming, again, making an assumption that because somebody comes into me and says, “I want the collaborative process,” that they really understood what that meant. For me, it's not only what people tell me what they want, but it's also my having a 10,000-foot view of the process and the players. If I understand the dynamics, the interpersonal dynamics between a couple, even if they say they want it, I may not think it's appropriate. Generally, I have releases from clients to speak to therapists, to speak to accounting people, money managers, you know, all the players that may be involved in someone's life. It may become really apparent to me that someone's wish is not going to actually be their best hope. It's really being able to stand back again and have the distance and hover over the process and explain to somebody, "I understand that's what you'd like." I may sometimes say, "Let's try it for two sessions and see what kind of progress we make,” because I give this limited hope, but if it's something you're really committed to trying, I certainly don't want to keep you from trying it, but I also don't want to see you spend the next nine months in frustration.

Rackham:

Sure, so when you were talking about assumptions earlier, one of the big assumptions you might make is somebody comes to you saying, "I want to mediate this," or "I want to use the collaborative process," and it'd be easy to assume that they know what that means. Then once you get a certain way down the road, you realize, "Oh, no. They said they wanted the collaborative process, but what they really want is an attorney who's going to do all the speaking for them, and that's not what the collaborative process is.”

Heidi:

Or, what they really want is to use the collaborative process themselves as a showcase for their own vendetta. There may be a reason someone wants the collaborative process, because they think they'll have more access to a spouse… There may be, I don't want to say nefarious reasons, but there may be reasons that people think the process will serve them better, but they don't have perspective on their goals enough to see how it might actually not achieve what they want. Or, they may be part of the problem. I do some work, I should say, with couples — a small, maybe 20% of my practice is with couples. That's always a bit tricky because people may come in wanting different things and so trying to get them in the same place and not... That's obviously more a mediation model for me, because I'm not an advocate, at that point, for either party, but I'm trying to get them on the same page and also in a helpful way.

Rackham:

So, you are mediating, but you're mediating the choice of process rather than the outcome.

Heidi:

Exactly. Exactly, and I may do some initial sort of identifying and distilling of goals of people, but not agreement drafting or getting it to the point of absolute resolution.

Rackham:

Now, on the flip side of that, what would you say is one decision that you've made along the way that was really great for your practice?

Heidi:

Well, having support staff, that's fantastic. When you develop something, I think there's this proprietary sense that, I don't know, maybe everybody doesn't feel this way, that you can do everything or you need to do everything. I have a terrific paralegal and a terrific office manager. I think they do a lot and add a lot and allow me to do more of what clients really want for me. It frees me up enormously when I'm not responding to concerns from people that they can respond to.

Rackham:

Yeah. There really is a tendency to adhere to this solo mentality once you've started out on your own, but over time you start to see, well, I could be billing more time or working on more projects if I weren't doing my own bookkeeping, or if I weren't answering my own phone. It's hard for people to let go of that. Sometimes they have very good reasons for that. They want to be the first voice that a potential client hears, for example. Other times, it's just a fear of letting go, or not realizing the return on investment that they'll get from it.

Heidi:

Right. I think when you're starting a business and you know, you're sort of just close financially, spending money is a difficult decision to make and having the confidence to say this is going to bring added value to my business is a hard decision to make. I mean everything from the phones you choose, to the people you surround yourself with in the office, and what you outsource. I think all that is part of the business decision, but, you know, it's really not been my experience that that does anything other than help grow the business.

Rackham:

Now, you mentioned support staff. Of course, there are a lot of digital options out there for having virtual support or ways to streamline your process and free up your time. Are there any digital tools or online resources, one or two in particular, that you think every ADR professional should have in their toolbox?

Heidi:

Well, I know you have many. I'll start by saying that. You have many more than I do. Well, pretty basic, I guess for me, I mean my phone system connects to my cellphone. That's huge for me because I'm not always in my office and it still doesn't identify my personal cellphone, or whatever, but it's also a seamless process having sort of a scanner that's associated with that, and a fax that's associated with that. I mean all those things sort of really have streamlined my practice. I really like Google docs. That's a process I like now that everybody sort of has their red line editing things that they like, but having sort of an internal system in our office between… My staff sometimes works from home and we have a Drobo system, whatever the formal name is of it, I'm not really sure, but they can connect to it from home. Just being more agile in terms of place, I guess, has been really important for me.

Rackham:

Yeah, that has been one of the real benefits of the more recent technologies, is the ability to work from anywhere. Of course, when you're meeting with a client, generally, that's not so much an option. I still have an office even though so much of my work is done virtually, but having that flexibility when you're not meeting with clients is huge, whether it's for you or your support staff.

Heidi:

Absolutely. I mean, sometimes, it's just nice to have a change of venue and just go the library or whatever, but I can connect to my office from wherever I am and that's huge. Yeah, definitely having a nice and welcoming office space is still an important thing in my practice.

Rackham:

Now, going a little bit more low-tech, are there any books that you'd recommend? Any one book in particular that you think every ADR practitioner, or every gatekeeper like yourself, should have in their bookshelf or in their Kindle — whether it's about ADR theory or business development, whatever you would recommend?

Heidi:

Yeah, you know, it's funny. There's a book I read called the Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge, who's actually a professor at MIT, and it's really on the sort of business theory of relationships. Not so much family relationships, but there's so much applicability of it to family dynamics that I found it really, really fascinating to sort of read that and contextualize it to people. That may sound like an out-of-the-box way of doing it, but to me, it was a really, really fascinating read. I mean obviously part of business is people, but the models are more corporate in the discussion, but they apply in families as well. Like when factories get backed up with products. I mean, you can say what's the applicability for that in a family? People back up process too, and I think the question is, what's keeping something from working? When you look at just family theory, you know that's certainly psychologically really interesting, but when you also look at families as systems that are really potentially malleable, it's helpful to me to sort of look at it in that way.

I was talking to somebody this morning, this is sort of a for instance, who… this is an initial phone call, and her husband had retained a lawyer and she hadn't anticipated this at all. One of the things she said immediately was that their 27-year-old son had moved back recently and it was causing a lot of friction and difficulty for them in their household. He's not a minor. She feels responsible. Her husband doesn't. It's a dynamic in that family structure that may have been a tipping point for him. It probably wasn't the only reason that he went and hired a lawyer, but it's really important as they unroll as a family and move forward, as she unrolls as a family, to not forget that that's a huge component of her life.

So, to just pay attention to the divorce, for me or anybody else to just sort of get her divorced, and not ask questions about, is this somebody who's going to need a special needs trust? Is this somebody who's going to need social security disability insurance? Is this somebody who's just sort of stuck and depressed and needs therapy? What is the level of why this is causing such a problem in that family? I feel, from my perspective, again, looking at things as a more holistic family dynamic that that's something that I need to look at, at the same time that I'm looking and helping somebody to hire someone who's going to get them through the divorce piece.

Rackham:

That's so important, and the book is called The Fifth Discipline?

Heidi:

It's called The Fifth Discipline, yeah.

Rackham:

Great. I'll put a link to that in the show notes.

Heidi:

The other thing that's interesting about the book, I'll just add, is that in terms of my staff, again, what he talks about in the book not only is about the structure of building a business in terms of the economics of it, but he talks about building learning organizations. For me, when I'm working with people who are working with me, I'm looking at their growth, too, so I'm sort of seeing... You know, people who are working with me are devoting a large part of their energy, and their time and their own development to this process, and I want them to feel like it's a positive experience for them and that they're growing from the experience. It's sort of that integrated concept is something that I’ve worked to incorporate into working with other people in my practice.

Rackham:

Heidi, what's one piece of advice that you would give to somebody who's just starting out setting up an ADR practice, or maybe somebody who has one and wants to grow it? Or, for somebody who wants to, again, be in a gatekeeper position such as yourself? What's one piece of advice?

Heidi:

I guess I would suggest that people cultivate mentors. I don't mean that in a sense of formal mentors, but to be open to learning from people who are more experienced than yourself, and to listen, just to really, really listen because I think people in all fields, but particularly in this field, are thoughtful. I think they're gracious with their time, and generous with their time and they're willing to impart their knowledge, their experience, and it's just something that you can leverage for your own growth both personally and for your business.

Rackham:

Great advice. Well, Heidi, thank you so much for your time. Before we go today, if somebody was interested in your services, what would be the best way to reach you?

Heidi:

They can go directly to our website which is consiliumdivorce.com. Actually, I'll just hasten to add what “Consilium” means, because people sometimes do ask, and it actually is advice and counsel. It's an old concept and an old word. It's Latin, but I think it’s almost bringing back this idea of sort of using multiple sources to come to a decision as opposed to being so solitary. If people want to e-mail directly, they can go to info@consiliumdivorce.com, or just directly to the website, there's a link.

Rackham:

Perfect. Thank you.

Heidi:

Thank you so much.

Rackham:

Well, that's today's show. Thanks for listening. You can find show notes for this episode including, any links to any books and other resources mentioned, at zephyrlaw.com/initiative. I have some more great guests lined up so be sure to join me next time for another edition of the ADR Initiative.