I often speak with couples who hope that I can be their mediator and then help them with the legal process to obtain a divorce. Ethically, this is not possible. It is not possible for the same person to function as both mediator and attorney. A simple way of looking at the professional ethics of the matter is like this: An attorney always represents a client. Thus, an attorney always takes sides. A mediator is always neutral. Thus, a mediator never takes sides. It’s really that simple. The professional is either neutral or they’re not. There is no in-between. The same person cannot wear both hats in the same case.
If you would like to verify this for yourself, refer to Rule 1.7 of the Attorney’s Rules of Professional Conduct. A divorce proceeding by definition involves two parties. One is a Plaintiff, and one is a Defendant, for example, Jane Doe v. John Doe. By definition, they are adversarial and the same lawyer cannot represent both. Under Rule 1.7, it is impossible for the client to waive the potential conflicts of interest. A mediator who undertook to act as an advocate in the same case would be violating important principles of mediator neutrality. Or, an attorney who acts as an advocate but then attempts to mediate some point of disagreement, by posing as a neutral, would also be committing a blatant violation of professional ethics. In short, there are attorneys who are qualified as mediators and mediators who are qualified as attorneys, but it is absolutely forbidden to act as mediator and attorney in the same case.
Because of these ethical requirements, it’s my view that the terms “mediating attorney” or “attorney mediator” are inappropriate ways to describe a person who has both attorney and mediator credentials. It’s my belief that these two terms together gives the false impression that an attorney who is also a mediator might function in both roles at the same time. To create ambiguity or confusion that blurs the roles is, in my view, highly unethical.
The thought of potentially hiring two professionals in a mediated divorce should not cause distress, however. It does not result in duplicate costs. Once a mediator helps parties reach agreement, attorneys can then draft the legal documents and take the legal actions to put the agreement into effect, if the parties desire.
Mentally, a divorcing couple is well served to distinguish between the process of reaching a divorce settlement, versus the process of obtaining a divorce decree. Clients who jointly utilize a mediator and then consult with separate attorneys are simply separating out two different professional roles, in a healthy way. The mediator’s role is to help the couple reach a settlement agreement fairly and cost effectively. Once the agreement is reached, the court process of achieving a simple, uncontested divorce is the role of the attorney.
The model of “unbundled services” is one in which the mediator is engaged to help parties reach agreement, and then the attorney is engaged for the court process of having that agreement made into a court order. Paying for these separately costs no more than keeping them lumped together. It may, in fact, be more efficient to pay each professional to perform the duty they have particular expertise in. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the goal is “cheap,” either. The mediation process keeps the parties in control of their own settlement, opening possibilities for solutions that no court could order. Mediation offers the possibility of far superior outcomes and happier clients in the long term.
Here’s how it works in my practice. When a divorcing couple is using another mediator, I am happy to wear a “lawyer hat” and support their mediation in two ways:
- First, I am happy to give legal advice (which the mediator cannot give). I do this on an hourly basis, with no retainer required.
- Second, after agreement has been reached I am happy to act as a representaional attorney to help achieve court approval of the divorce papers. To do this, I take whatever memorandum of agreement I’m provided, use that to draft a legal separation agreement, and represent one party to take the steps necessary to have the agreement made into a court order.
- A third option in which I will wear a “lawyer hat” is in the case of collaborative divorce. (In collaborative divorce, a mediator is not generally used. Each party has their own attorney who negotiates on their behalf, but everyone agrees that the case will be settled outside of court.)
In other cases I wear a “mediator hat.” When I act as mediator, I help couples reach a comprehensive divorce settlement agreement. This agreement is then passed along to the person with courtroom expertise, a representational attorney, who will take the steps necessary to have the agreement incorporated into a divorce decree.
The proper use of professionals within their appropriate roles helps keep mediation safe for parties. The goal of a mediated divorce is not be be “cheap” or to “cut corners,” but in fact to provide a better process and a better result. Attorneys are used for representation and advice. Mediators are used to facilitate agreement that reflects the parties’ unique values and circumstances. All this can be accomplished quite cost effectively, through use of unbundled services. The use of a combination of mediation and unbundled legal services does, generally speaking, save couples a “bundle”. And, done properly, this more peaceable and cost effective divorce can be achieved without the feeling of betrayal that can happen when a party who thought their mediator was neutral finds out at the very end that this person was in fact acting as an attorney and representing the “other side” during their divorce negotiations.
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I’m curious on your thoughts…
I’m currently struggling with my boyfriend’s ex wife’s behavior. She is an attorney AND mediator in the state of New Jersey. She mediated their divorce. As a licensed professional myself, I believe this was unethical behavior that has set the stage for her current bullying behavior…any thoughts?
In my opinion, it would not be possible for a party to mediate their own divorce. By definition, a mediator is a neutral, third party. By definition, person getting divorced is neither neutral nor detached from the outcome.