My last in-person divorce mediation session was held in mid-March 2020.
The Covid-19 lock down changed the way people do business, including divorce mediation in Maryland around the country. The Maryland family law bar scrambled to advise attorneys about selection of secure teleconference service providers and appropriate software for getting documents signed by electronic signature. New methods were devised to securely exchange financial documents normally produced in person during mediation. My impression was the practice of mediation might suffer from this transition of format. It all felt less personal, less hospitable, more exhausting.
It took some months for all to catch up on the learning curve of using Zoom, unmuting, screaming feedback, weak internet connections, uninvited children, grandparents, and many, many pets intruding into sessions. At first this seemed to be the norm and not the exception.
Fast forward to the fall of 2020 and along with it, the realization that the Pandemic would not suddenly end, and Zoom was here to stay. It seemed everyone had caught up on how to use Zoom and divorce mediation by teleconference started to feel “normal.” Whether by Zoom weddings, birthdays, funerals, and for every other personal use, almost everyone, young and old, had experience on how to connect on teleconference. Suddenly cyber-barriers which felt like an impediment to mediation converted to a more normal-feeling tool for mediation. I could feel the change. I had to ask myself why.
The answer to the “why” is not complicated, but separation and divorce are complicated. That is why “convenience” matters to involved families. Separation and divorce mediation by Zoom or other teleconference is convenient. It is convenient. It is convenient. Convenience matters while juggling separation, divorce and custody mediation while trying to live. Convenience has been a hallmark of my family law mediation process in Maryland since I began my Baltimore County mediation practice 15 years ago. In my family law mediation practice I have always offered regular business hours and evening hours and weekend hours to address hardships; and divorcing people took advantage of those hours to avoid hardship. Convenience goes a long way to break down barriers to attend a divorce negotiation proceedings which of course, people naturally dread. The parties are located where their financial records are located for easy reference. There are no inclement weather worries. There is no driving in the dark. There are no empty parking lots to navigate during evening appointment hours.
Separation and divorce mediation in Maryland by Zoom or other teleconference is comfortable. I have always tried to furnish my mediation conference table with cushy chairs and an array of snacks to increase the comfort of people who must process information in a stressful situation. In general, people tended to dress for in-person mediation as if it were casual Friday in the office. However, isn’t everyone more comfortable in sweatpants? Comfortable people process information better than uncomfortable people. People now mediate from their favorite chairs, their own kitchen tables, their familiar home offices and yes, occasionally from their bedrooms.
Separation and divorce mediation in Maryland by Zoom or other teleconference felt safer for many people. Every mediator dreads the desperate couple who seeks mediation as a cost-effective alternative even where one party feels emotionally unsafe, or shaken up, or less brave in the presence of his/her soon-to-be former spouse. I remember many occasions where I had to stagger each party’s coming and going to stop unwanted (often by one party) parking lot discussions after mediation. I used to watch my people from the window of my office to assure safe passage where emotions ran high. Where all three participants are in separate locations, the end of the session provides no opportunity for post-mediation-session parking lot lobbying of one party by the other.
Separation and Divorce mediation in Maryland by Zoom or other teleconference is less dramatic and more businesslike. Pre-pandemic in-office mediation for divorce or child custody was usually set up with the mediator on one side of a table, and the parties opposite the mediator, next to one another. Every so often, a distraught and angry spouse would pointedly move his/her stuff away from the other spouse to a remote seat away from the other, meaning the opening gesture of the mediation was “I don’t like you” which set a negative tone for the mediation. That type of drama is eliminated in remote family law mediation for by teleconference. Drama is a distraction and reduces productivity.
No family law mediation is more dramatic than child custody mediation. That Child custody triggers the primal instincts of parents and drama is often the rule and not the exception. Child custody mediation by remote teleconference may have created a new opportunity for parents who otherwise felt they could not sit in the same room as his/her coparent. Now they do not have to do so any longer.
Separation and divorce mediation options became broader due to mediation by teleconference. Location of the parties from more remote counties, like the Eastern Shore of Maryland no longer mattered. As the “temporary pandemic” frame-of-mind began to shift, attitudes about remote mediation for child custody or divorce shifted with it. The public reached acceptance mode. An obvious positive consequence of remote family law mediation was that the precise location of the parties in Maryland is no longer a barrier to selecting your mediator. Couples from all over the state of Maryland began to gravitate to my website. Being in Baltimore County was no longer an impediment to couples seeking to divorce in Frederick County, Montgomery County, and the Eastern shore of Maryland; counties where other mediators are more expensive or where mediators are too few.
Mediation by teleconference works in many formats. Although divorce mediation, or custody mediation are most often done without attorneys participating in the mediation, occasionally attorneys do attend mediation, either a single session or all of them. By the fall of 2020 5-way mediation, with the mediator, the parties and each of their lawyers was underway. I was kept awake by fears of my potential errors relating to shifting one party and his attorney to the other party and her attorney. But no errors occurred. It worked rather seamlessly. It was efficient and cost-effective. The mediator could view the “other side” enter the waiting room. I could message those waiting to notify them if the session was running late. I could physically remove “one side” and then admit “the other side.” It felt more comfortable for the attorneys who were free to attend to other business in between sessions. No client paid his/her attorney to drive to and from my office. Each attorney had access to his/her own computer, paralegal, etc., between caucus sessions to comfortably conduct any research, file search, etc. A post-mediation pow-wow with the attorneys resulted in a consensus that future cases involving attorney participation, teleconference mediation may be a superior format. I would no longer have to choose which “side” was stuffed into my little caucus conference room and which “side” got my main office. . It was cost-effective for everyone.
When I began my divorce mediation practice in Maryland 15 years ago, I provided a free consultation to generate business. I was stood up by one party or both on too many occasions. The free consultation ceased to be cost-effective. I shifted to providing a monthly free seminar, and they were useful and popular and provided people with an orientation into divorce mediation in Maryland, or custody mediation in Maryland. People had the opportunity to meet the mediator, and they received an introduction into a different way to handle family law matters. The pandemic put an end to the free seminar and revived the free consultation in my practice. For reasons I can only guess, the free consultation offer has resulted in almost zero “no shows.” Convenience. Comfort. Safer. Less dramatic. More businesslike. One less barrier to resolving a difficult matter.
I long for the interpersonal interaction of in-person mediation. Heck we all long for inter-personal interaction. However, I have already determined that I will retain the Zoom teleconference mediation on a permanent basis for those who want it for these reasons, assuming it is appropriate. For attorney-participating negotiations and/or for mediation participants who feel emotionally unsafe in the presence of his/her spouse, it may be my preferred method of mediation.
The overwhelming nature of the divorce life change makes any barrier to settlement feel like climbing a mountain.
Often remote mediation by teleconference eliminates the need for baby-sitters for many, eliminates the time between ending mediation and beginning dinner to about a minute, ends driving in the dark (for evening appointments) and driving in bad weather. Nobody can claim to have left an account statement at home.
Comfort, comfort, comfort. It can be difficult to get out of bed when you are experiencing the shock of separation and impending divorce, and now you really do not have to. Yes, that is correct, people are sitting in their beds during mediation. Against pillows. Documents spread out next to them. Comfort animals on their lap. Favorite mugs of favorite tea on the nightstand. With access to the devices that pull up latest account statements, etc. They have everything they need and want. They pause mediation for a minute here and there to check on kids. I have always worked very hard to make the people sitting in my office comfortable enough to be able to process the swamp of information and difficult decisions coming at them. People who are more comfortable likely process financial information then people who are less comfortable.
Face-To-Face negotiations with built-in physical distance. That means there is a mediation process for separation and divorce in Maryland where parties who don’t wish to be in the same room can occur while all in the same Zoom Room. Many people are intimidated by his/her soon-to-be-ex spouse, and cyber barrier has empowered many to be more effective negotiators.
Shorter sessions. Sessions typically last 2 hours. However with teleconference I am seeing pattern. Shorter, more frequent sessions, more issue-by-issue discussions. This may be more palatable. This may bring more focus to discussions. This may ease the impact of my fees on monthly budgets. Where the time necessary to commute to the session is eliminated, fitting in mediation during a business day may be less burdensome. The overall time spent in mediation seems to be unchanged.
Convenience. Did I mention convenience? So many couples launch into litigation due to the inertia of a depressed spouse who is overwhelmed by a choice not made by him or her. The refusal to take action can wear on a spouse ready to move forward. A free consultation from your IPhone may be the meeting which provides that inert spouse with the will to start the discussions. When the discussions start the inertia often lifts. The vision of the light at the end of the tunnel is very motivating. A tentative grasp on a known future is very reassuring. The convenience of Zoom mediation is a gentle nudge forward.
Is mediation in Maryland, for divorce, custody or other co-parenting issues by Zoom teleconference right for you?