preLaw - Winter 2011 - 40
CHILD & FAMILY LAW
The family practitioner: Custody, divorce and settlements
Like most family law practitioners, most of Robert Merlin’s practice in Coral Gables, Fla., is made up of divorces — 20 to 25 per year. But the type of divorce he favors is a kinder, gentler marital split, far different from the domestic wars sometimes waged. Each year, Merlin, a 1978 graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, handles about four or five collaborative divorces, a type of dispute resolution he started doing in 2005. He would like to do many more. In these cases, husband and wife agree not to go to court and instead politely negotiate financial and custody agreements with specially trained attorneys and financial advisers. “They have to be respectful of each other without threatening to go into court,” Merlin said about the couples. “Attorneys in a collaborative divorce will not represent either party if they instead decide to go to court. The parties learn to communicate, and the vast majority of times they don’t end up in court later seeking a post-divorce judgment.” Attorneys take training in the collaborative law process, usually at special seminars, and often belong to local groups of collaborative professionals, as does Merlin. Peace can actually break out among all concerned, as one of Merlin’s recent cases illustrated. He was representing a husband who believed his wife was having an extramarital affair, and he wanted to fight for primary custody of their children as a form of payback. But after he and his wife went through the collaborative process, they agreed to share time with the children. “As part of the divorce, their house had to be sold, and he actually went to the house and helped his wife pack up and then went to dinner with her and her parents,” Merlin said. “It went from being a situation filled with huge animosity to one in which they can have a healthy relationship — to the benefit of their children.” Collaboration also means a judge doesn’t set arbitrary timetables, Merlin said. In his very first collaborative divorce case, the fate of $6 million in assets was settled in two to three meetings, and the divorce was final in six weeks. “Contrast that with a case I took over in 2008 from a previous attorney. I tried to convince the husband to go into mediation, but he refused,” Merlin said. “That case ended up in a trial over five different days spread out over five months. Everything was settled in December 2009, and the final judgment was issued in August 2010. The husband filed an immediate appeal.” The two sides have incurred $500,000 in legal fees, Merlin said.
Where to study
Child & Family Law
DePaul University College of Law Notre Dame Law School Southwestern Law School Texas Wesleyan School of Law University of Connecticut School of Law University of Florida Levin College of Law