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Pauline Tesler: Dear Collaborator

By Jennifer Jackson, JD (2003, Collaborative Review, Volume 5, Issue 3)

Ok, so you all guessed that Pauline Tesler is the author of our popular and entertaining Dear Collaborator Column. But there is much about Pauline you probably don’t know. President and co-founder (with Peggy Thompson, et al.) of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, Pauline Tesler is one of the most visible and dedicated writers, trainers and philosophers in Collaborative Practice. I was honored to have the opportunity to sit with Pauline in her Mill Valley office and talk with her about her career, her goals for our organization and her thoughts and dreams about Collaborative Practice:

Pauline Tesler began her career as a schoolteacher. After being graduated from Harvard University, she received a masters degree in English from the University of Manchester in England. Pauline first taught English in high school in Rochester, New York and then at City College in Chicago. From there she was drawn into a program through the University of Wisconsin funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Leaders of the notorious Chicago street gang the Blackstone Rangers were taken from the very dangerous streets of the South Side to Milwaukee, where they were trained and paid to be street educators. The theory was to bring the indigenous leadership of the black community into a setting where they could understand and develop their leadership potential. They hired Pauline to put out to the public the true purposes of the program before the press got wind of the fact that these somewhat notorious gang members had been brought into the school of education. That experience drew her to law school at the University of Wisconsin. Pauline looks back at Wisconsin as the perfect law school for her because of its strong social policy orientation and multi- disciplinary programming. She studied with Joel Handler, a professor who concentrated on law reform, legal services and poverty law as social phenomena. He had been given a Ford Foundation grant to monitor the docket of a major public interest law firm in San Francisco, and was also researching the career paths of public interest and legal services lawyers. He hired Pauline to interview all of the public interest lawyers in the Bay Area about their career trajectories, and to evaluate the docket at Public Advocates. She went to San Francisco between her second and third year of law school to do this research for him. She remembers that it was "like being sent to Mecca: I was being paid to interview everybody who might give me a job!"

She also remembers meeting" lots and lots of people, which didn’t do me one bit of good in getting me a job because in those days ‘regular’ law firms interviewed you, but you beat down the doors of public interest firms." Not being deterred from her passion to be a public interest lawyer, Pauline moved to San Francisco without a job despite having graduated first in her law school class. She found work with Kennedy and Rhine, an "edgy" firm that represented the likes of the Black Panthers and the Mitchell Brothers - until she got her "foot in the door" by being hired at the National Center for Youth Law, where she did test case litigation and law reform work from 1975-1981. "It was an incredible experience, but the most demanding work I’ve ever done - we toiled around the clock for weeks on end, year after year."

How Did Your Career Evolve Into Family Law?

It was pretty much accidental, as most of the crossroads in my life have been: "I guess I’ll be a family lawyer". When Reagan was elected president and the money for federally-funded legal services programs was drying up, I had to choose whether to stay and spend much of my time fund-raising my own salary, or to move into the private sector. I had no interest in fighting the funding wars. It seemed from the work I’d done on children’s rights issues that family law would be the logical transition.

I started interviewing and wound up with an all-women family law firm in Marin County, California: Diamond Bennington & Simborg. I had no idea what I was getting into. I really had no clue what it meant to be a family lawyer. I did what public interest lawyers are trained to do: I charged in on a white horse, looked for the bad guy, and fought to win. Oh, I loved a good fight - I just loved it. There’s a part of me that misses that: strategizing with your own team and having it play out just as you planned, only better. There are days I remember from trial work that are unmatched - from my perspective, anyway, but I’m very sure my clients remember that day in court very differently. It took me years to find out that the "good fight" wasn’t doing my clients any good. Now, I can get just as charged up about process. The excitement for me in Collaborative Law is in process management - in taking clients into something so completely unfamiliar to them and in really understanding how to guide them through it. There’s plenty of challenge; it’s just not all-consuming in the way trial work is.
I started my own practice in 1984, sharing space with another family law specialist, Diana Richmond. A year later, my husband and I decided to practice together ( he had been my "boss" at the National Center for Youth Law), which we’ve done ever since.

How Did Your Public Interest Background Shape Your Family Law Career?

My determination that I was going to be excellent at family law is what caused me to be miserable enough to hunt for a better way. I eventually could see that no matter how good I was at family law trial practice, it just wasn’t making much of a positive difference in my clients’ lives. As public interest lawyer, your orientation to courts and the system is as an outsider - so I was accustomed to treating courts and systems as a problem, to viewing institutions and systems as largely accidental and not likely to be that well thought out. Public interest lawyers have a huge amount of chutzpah: the nearly unshakeable belief that you can figure out how to do it better (however little evidence there is for that belief)–or at minimum the belief that whatever you do, it couldn’t be worse than what already is. It was thus not a big step to begin thinking about the institutions of family law practice as the source of the problem–and to decide that I had to find an entirely different way to practice family law.

How Did You Get Into Collaborative Law?

By the late eighties, I had become thoroughly miserable in Family Law. It was just intolerable. It didn’t matter how good a lawyer I was, I just didn’t seem to be able to accomplish anything truly constructive. Nothing good was coming out of it–not in how my daily professional life was going, not in how my clients’ lives were going, and not in what the courts were doing about all that.

Because I had an interest in Jungian psychology, I started thinking in terms of archetypal psychology about changing the way I did family law so that it possibly could achieve something useful. I was immersed in that inquiry, reading at the Jung Institute library, studying privately with Angeles Arrien, a Shamanic anthropologist who teaches from the perspective of what we can learn from simpler cultures about how to do our professional work in a complex culture in a personally authentic way. I came to the conclusion that what was needed was a way to speak to the right side of lawyers’ brains, to reshape the warrior or gladiator archetype that we all carry with us every day into something wiser and more constructively adapted to the needs of divorcing families.

All pieces were there, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I was sort of floundering as to how I was going to pull all this together. Then I saw an article in the Family Law News by Jamie Throgmorton about a Collaborative Law seminar Stu Webb had given. In a moment of utter certainty, I knew that this was exactly what I had to do. It calls to mind the transformation of a supersaturated solution; it is the dropping of that last bead into the solution that instantly transforms it into crystals. I was the product of a whole series of life experiences, frustrations and angst that led me to flounder around for all those years trying to figure out how to make family law better for me and my clients. Without having gone through exactly that sequence of frustrating steps and missteps, I don’t think reading about Collaborative Law would have had that impact on me. It was clear to me almost instantly that everything I was thinking about and working on fit so beautifully into the model Stu had developed. I began to understand structurally how archetypal psychology related to the work I was doing with Angie about how to evoke the best from my clients and colleagues, how these related to everything I saw as being problematic in family law systems and how every piece of integrating my own work into the collaborative model made sense no matter which lens I used to look at it. We intuitive thinking types: all you have to do is give us a concept - we may be pretty weak on the details at first but that doesn’t trouble us one single bit because we know the whole thing will ultimately come together, just from seeing that first kernel.

I couldn’t wait to talk to people about it because I was so excited. I wrote to Stu right way. I was quite presumptuous: "tell me all about this so that we can work together." He was most generous and sent back a whole packet full of materials, and was very encouraging.

Bringing into collaborative practice the concept of the "shadow client" is the contribution that I think I’ve made to the evolution of the collaborative model. It’s an important foundation of my introductory trainings, and it comes directly from that work that I did with Angeles Arrien and in archetypal psychology. Paying attention to the psychodynamics of what’s happening in our clients’ lives and the psychodynamics at the table with us is to my mind the most significant thing that differentiates us from litigating family law attorneys. You can’t do this work at a high level without being deeply attuned to that dimension of our work. It’s what separates the sheep from the goats in collaborative practice.
What Was the Next Step?

I then channeled my energy into getting a practice group together. Over the years, I had commiserated with a handful of colleagues; we agreed that starting a dog washing business might be preferable to continuing on in family law - there was a palpable sense of desperation: there’s got to be something else, this is no way to live a life. I was sure they would be very interested in this. Three of us got together in 1993 to identify a group of people we thought we’d like to see on the other side of cases working in this new way. The first thing we agreed to do was to expand in two stages - a small working group and from that we’d call together a larger group, but still a small invitational group.

If you take that first group and look at their reputations, the organizations they belonged to, the clients they were representing, their colleagues’ opinion of them as to whether they were reasonable human beings or not - it was a very good list; you couldn’t distinguish among us at the front end, starting out as collaborative lawyers. What did happen is that as we moved along that first year, working on documentation issues and protocols, we separated into three natural sub- affinity groups; where each of us is today as collaborative practitioners reflects what emerged way back then. A third of us have ended up deeply committed to collaboration and are having great success with clients electing collaboration as the mode they want for their divorces. A third of us have a mixed practice (but aren’t setting the world on fire in terms of commitment to the model), and a third have not really become collaborative lawyers. This last group would tell the rest of us that their clients "just aren’t choosing it". I believe that it is a direct function of enthusiasm for the concept; those of us who were passionate about it from the start are now doing exclusively collaborative law - those who were skeptical about it, those who insisted that the disqualification agreement was not essential, those who struggled with the basic concept - those people aren’t doing that much collaboration at this point. Given their ambivalence and doubt, why should their clients choose it?

Those core people, the people in the first subgroup, are the lawyers with whom I currently do my very best collaborative work. I think that every family law practitioner tends to seek out as colleagues other family lawyers with whom there is the possibility of rapport and trust. Those are critical qualities that must be present at the four-way table to sustain the work. Without them it is just about impossible to do good collaborative work. I think everybody has a private short list of people he or she gets along with and trusts. The ones on my own short list are the people I like to see at the four-way table, with whom I always do high quality collaborative work. But my list isn’t going to be the same as someone else’s. I believe it’s valuable to acknowledge this, and to form affinity groups in any way you are able to that can offer this very valuable quality of trust between counsel to the clients you represent.

What is the Composition of Your Law Practice and How Did That Develop?

I haven’t taken in anything but collaborative cases since 1998 or 1999. I manage to make a comfortable living, so I think I must have at least 15 or 20 cases going at any given time. Where do they come from? I was always referred a lot of my cases by mental health professionals; that has only increased since I’ve specialized in collaboration. In developing my client base as a collaborative lawyer, I set as a personal goal in the late nineties that every Wednesday I would devote half a day to setting some idea in motion that was in the nature of marketing and practice development. Some weeks my ideas were pretty feeble, but overall the strategy worked very well. One of the things I did was to send out a mailing with a big packet of informational materials to all of the therapists that I could locate in my county and a healthy selection of therapists in San Francisco. Another week I did the same thing with clergy. Another week with accountants and financial planners; another with the heads of corporate law departments of large firms and another week it went out to California Women Lawyers. Also I learned how to write press releases, and sent them out with some regularity. And I wrote articles for the Chamber of Commerce newsletter, and my alumnae magazine—and so on.

How Did You Come to Be a Writer and Trainer?

I started giving little talks here and there. The first major presentation was a half hour plenary session at a conference of highly respected colleagues and professionals sponsored by The Judith Wallerstein Center in 1999. To prepare my talk, I became consumed with reading and thinking about what was really wrong for families about how family law litigation was being conducted. I was writing on little post-it notes and got flip charts and spread out pages all over my library - each sheet was a different conceptual area that was interesting to me about collaboration as a better way to do divorces. Out of that I put together a fairly impassioned talk that then became an article that was published in the American Journal of Family Law. That article was the crystallization of everything I most profoundly believed about why family lawyers needed to be moving away from litigation and toward collaboration.

As I began to be invited to speak at other conferences and other kinds of events, I was pushed to a different level of thinking about what my work was going to be. In Orlando, I was on an AFCC panel with fellow IACP board member Barbara Stark, who encouraged me to write a book. I couldn’t imagine doing that, but Barbara was on the family law publications board of the American Bar Association and persuaded me that the ABA was the most gentle and cooperative of publishers. At the same time I embarked on the book, I was invited by IACP Advisory Board member Bruce Winick to write a more academic piece about collaborative law for a special issue of the Journal of Psychology, Public Policy and Law on therapeutic jurisprudence. I did those two pieces of major writing in about eighteen months. Fortunately, my law partner is also my husband. He picked up all the pieces at home and at work.

I began writing because practising collaborative law caused an explosion of creative energy in my mind. Some days I could not write fast enough to keep up with what I was learning as I did cases. The books and articles that I wrote in 1999-2001 virtually wrote themselves. I’d go for a walk and come back with another article or chapter sketched out, not because I wanted to but because it was so very exciting to experience the spontaneous synthesis that was taking place in my mind: Stu’s model, Jungian psychological concepts, studies in metaphor, studies in legal ethics, negotiating theory, and a whole range of other personal explorations that until then I’d been trying without success to integrate into my legal work. By the time I finished doing all that writing I knew I wanted to do training because I realized I had something to offer that perhaps other people weren’t saying in quite the same way that I could.

I started out by doing lawyer-only trainings in Boston, Dallas, and Houston (the latter two with Stu Webb), and interdisciplinary team trainings (with Stu as the other collaborative lawyer) in conjunction with Nancy Ross, Peggy Thompson and others, in San Francisco and Vancouver. I discovered several things in these early trainings: the way that I have organized my thinking about collaborative law for my own purposes translates quite effectively into a training context and seems to be helpful to new collaborative lawyers; and my excitement and particular vision about the significance of the collaborative model seem to be readily communicable to others. I think of my particular strength as an ability to put collaborative practice in a larger context, including sociological and psychological dimensions that are of importance to collaborative lawyers, and an ability to synthesize perspectives and understandings from a variety of fields in a way that seems to be accessible and practical. I think of my task, especially in introductory or foundational trainings, to be transforming the perspective of the participants so that they leave with a very different mental construct of what it means to be a family lawyer than they arrived with. My belief is that if you start there, rather than focusing on checklists and protocols, you encourage new collaborative lawyers to be imaginative problem solvers because they will have the means to create solutions to their own problems once they retool their sense of who they are, who the clients are, and what the task of the collaborative practitioner is. It’s a variant on the old cliche: give a man a fish and he eats lunch; teach him to fish and he feeds himself and others. Once you transform the lawyers’ thought forms, you can hand them checklists and they will know exactly what to do with them. Start with the checklists and you may get endless follow-up questions from anxious practitioners who lack the courage to answer their own questions.

I Understand that Collaborative Law is Coming to London?

I was invited by members of the Solicitors’ Family Law Association (which includes family lawyers from all over the UK) to deliver a two-day first training in London in September, preceded by an evening talk to people who weren’t ready yet to sign on for a full training commitment. The participants in the training were extraordinarily quick studies, without any of the resistance or fear about collaboration that we commonly encounter when lawyers are considering a very new way of practising law. A core group was formed to plan further trainings and to create a practice group structure. It was exciting and gratifying to see how ready these cousins were for this model, and how clear it was to them that the elements of collaboration transcend cultural differences.

Where is the Movement Going?

Where our movement is going is GLOBAL. The UK planning group based in London seems to have in mind bringing collaboration to all of Europe, not just the UK. Stu Webb and Marion Korn have already delivered a full day presentation in Vienna, and that’s just the beginning. I’ve had inquiries from Australia, and expect that there will be trainings taking place there sometime in 2004. IACP is sponsoring a public relations project that is aimed at bringing a consistent message to communities all over the US and Canada about what collaborative family law can mean to divorcing families. IACP’s standards project, which should have standards in place by the middle of 2004, will permit practitioners and trainers everywhere in the world to use our Web site for affirming voluntary compliance with consistent guidelines for the best practice of collaborative dispute resolution.

As one of the founders and current President of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, can you describe its development? Peggy Thompson, who is a true visionary, was really the person who called IACP into being. IACP started out as a lunch group of representatives from all of the Bay Area counties in which anything was going on about Collaborative Divorce or Collaborative Law. Each county had one or two people interested in getting together and creating some kind of networking association. For some, that meant literally a Bay Area networking group. This was not something that I was interested in; I agreed with Peggy that we needed to conceive of the role of this emerging little organization quite broadly as being the infrastructure to support Collaborative Practice in all of its manifestations and in all of its geographical locations.

The naming of the organization was a beautiful metaphor for this: we had not even finished deciding whether we could be so presumptuous as to call ourselves "The California Collaborative Institute" when we realized that our scope had to be much broader. We incorporated as "The American Institute of Collaborative Professionals." The incorporation papers had barely come back from the Secretary of State when we realized that the Canadian presence in the collaborative community was so significant that we would need to be an International Academy. Just as we completed that renaming process, Greg Hermann of Wisconsin called together a meeting of interested practitioners in Chicago, to which the IACP board sent a large delegation, and out of that meeting, IACP as we now know it emerged.

Early on in this organizational development process, I wanted to bring on to the original small board of directors someone who could do a journal with me. I knew of just one perfect person for the job: you. Fortunately for IACP, you accepted the invitation, and one afternoon in 1999 you brought your computer into my office and we looked at some layouts and just started typing. This became the first issue of the Collaborative Review, and you and I have been putting this publication out ever since, now with your sister Paula’s help.

How Do You Define Success in Collaboration?

What I say in trainings is: success in collaborative practice means detaching from outcome as the measure of whether you are doing a good job for your client. Instead, success consists of both lawyers working together to deliver on the only promise I believe collaborative lawyers can make to our clients: that we will provide the best possible circumstances in which the clients themselves can devise high quality, creative solutions to their own divorce-related problems, guiding the negotiations and managing the conflicts that emerge. We fail when we do not work together effectively to deliver on that promise. We succeed when we do.

How Has Collaborative Practice Transformed Your Life?

It has made me excited about being a family lawyer instead of wretched. From what had been a daily diet of stress that was far off the charts, my personal and professional lives have become sustaining and integrated, in the sense that practically everything I’m interested in personally feeds into my work and nourishes it. I generally am able to function authentically in my professional life rather than to hide behind a litigative persona for protection from the pain my clients bring into the office. I am confident now, as I never was in family law before becoming a collaborative lawyer, that I’m doing useful work. Working to become very good at collaboration, one discovers that everything that makes you a better person makes you a better collaborative lawyer and conversely, everything that make you a better collaborative lawyer makes you a better person. This is a kind of integration that I think few lawyers practicing in more traditional ways experience.

What is the "Lawyer as Problem Solver" Award?

The ABA Section on Dispute Resolution created this award to honor lawyers who were making a substantial contribution to the concept of lawyers as problem solvers rather than as the alter egos, gladiators, and warriors that were considered the ideal lawyers in the 70s and 80s. I’ve been happy to learn, however, that those decades fostered a deviation from older and more civilized views of the proper role for a lawyer. In my research I came across the concept, alive in the 19th and early 20th centuries, of the lawyer as a wise counselor, an engaged moral agent. I just love that phrase. It’s why I went to law school, why I became a public interest lawyer, and now I find that there are words for what I thought it meant to be a lawyer, and that the ABA approves of practising law that way. Stu and I shared the first of these annual awards in 2002. Although the arena in which I’m working is family law, one really constant concern of mine has always been the law as a profession. I’m fascinated with the law, what it is about, how people relate to it, what lawyers think they’re doing, how that relates to being a human being. So it was immensely gratifying getting that award. I’d always seen myself as an outsider until then, particularly in public interest law where every day you push boulders uphill and hope they will not land back on your head. As a "tilting at windmills" sort of person, I never in my wildest imagination dreamed that the ABA would acknowledge me for anything that I thought was important. Then here comes the biggest association of lawyers in the world to say: good work.

Ditto, Pauline, from all of your collaborative colleagues.

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©2010-2014 Jennifer Jackson