Rhonda Cleaves has been practicing law for 25 years, and 15 have been spent exclusively in family law. But these days, it’s extremely rare for her to see the inside of the courtroom. Cleaves specializes in collaborative divorce, a process that is a more unified, gentler, and more modern, removing much of the animosity fostered in a court room, and it’s become her passion.

The collaborative process starts with two people on opposite sides, dividing their shared lives up between them. However, instead of preparing for court, both of their lawyers hand them participation agreements. When they sign, they have both pledged not to seek litigation. From that point of unity, their divorce may proceed.

Texas was the first to pass a collaborative law statute in 2011. A collaborative divorce smooths out the process and Cleaves says that the aftermath is much more amicable for both parents and children. “We have families who find ways to spend holidays together, even when they remarry.”

As a board member for Collaborative Divorce of Texas, an organization of about 300 lawyers, Cleaves says their mission is twofold: educate the public about it and provide training to professionals who want to be a part of it. Their overall endgame is to provide the resources, structure, and emotionally safe space where both parties can express their interests and goals, and negotiate without going to court. It’s an especially effective method when a couple has children, for whom the divorce process can be especially stressful. 

“Unfortunately, [divorce] rips families apart,” Cleaves says. “These are parents who were going to be parents together forever and now they can’t talk to each other.”

It puts the kids in the middle of the fight, which is why during a collaborative divorce, there’s a mental health professional who is neutral in the disagreement, and who helps the two parents form a plan for how to tell their children. “The main thing I’ve learned is that kids see themselves as 50 percent of each parent,” she explains. “Having parents who can’t talk to each other—kids really do take that on personally.”

In 2018, there were 2.6 divorces per thousand inhabitants in Texas. This figure is a decrease from 1990, when the divorce rate was 5.5 divorces per thousand inhabitants.

Collaborative divorce ensures that kids hear the same message from both parents at the same time. Cleaves often tells her clients that her own parents divorced when she was five years old. “I may not have ever sat where you’re sitting,” she tells them, “but I’ve been where your kids are.”

Cleaves, who studied psychology in college, was drawn to the collaborative process because it modernizes the concept of divorce by taking it out of the courtroom. Though she used to spend her days litigating multi-million dollar personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits, she found that it drained her spirit. In 2006, she was introduced to collaborative law and she hasn’t looked back. 

“When divorces first started happening, people had to get a legal divorce,” she says. “There was no legal mechanism for that to happen. [Divorce] was shoved into a legal system that existed for criminal issues, business disputes, court claims. Divorce was this square peg shoved in a round hole.

“Now we understand the impact on children and people, adults, and it’s a way to address those negative effects, not just emotionally but financially.”  

A courtroom isn’t suited to the complicated emotions involved in getting a divorce, where a judge has half a day to get to know a whole case, three hours to distill a lifetime together and to make a decision. It’s also an inherently confrontational system.

Litigation revolves around getting as much as one can from their former spouse, no matter if it’s cutthroat. 

“You’re putting up walls rather than trying to communicate,” Cleaves says.

Instead, a collaborative divorce means each spouse has an attorney who is trained in collaborative divorce proceedings. There aren’t as many trained as Cleaves would like; collaborative divorce is still being introduced into law school.

At the beginning of the process, both spouses sign a document that they will not go to court, taking the threat of litigation off the table and ensuring that everyone’s mind is set on resolution. Instead, the divorces happen in a conference room, or during a pandemic, over a Zoom call. It’s adaptable. There is no working around a judge’s busy schedule. The couple can dictate the pace of their divorce. 

From that point, with a mental health professional and a financial professional, both  neutral, on hand, problems are worked out together. If a house or piece of property needs its value appraised, both spouses pick one appraiser, one source of definitive information. Both clients jointly retain any experts they hire, which saves money.  

“Most people have never been divorced before,” Cleaves says. “We provide what we call a road map for resolution. Get the case going, conduct your information gathering, and develop your options for the future, and negotiation.” 

Still, not every family walks away happy. “Divorce sucks, to use a legal term,” Cleaves says. “But it is so much better for both families. I’d rather do collaborative divorce because I feel like I’m helping people in the right way.”

Cleaves Family Law | 5504 Democracy Dr #240 | (972) 403-0333

Rhonda Cleaves is a former advertiser with Local Profile.