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Collaborative lawyer Sandra Crawford brings consensus to family law

Published in 2012 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By William Wagner on January 2, 2012


Sandra Crawford keeps a small piece of paper on a windowsill next to the desk in her Chicago Loop law office. The paper, tattered around the edges from frequent handling, bears the following quote by Abraham Lincoln:

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”

Those words capture the essence of collaborative law, a nonlitigious way to end marriages and business partnerships. For Crawford, it’s both a profession and a passion. After graduating from The John Marshall Law School in 1989 and gravitating toward family law, she grew weary of witnessing the destructive effects of litigated divorce cases. She was among the first to sign up when the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois (CLII) was formed in 2002.

“You are more of a peacemaker in a collaborative environment than a war-maker,” says Crawford, 50, who launched her own practice, Law Crawford, in 2006. “I just personally and philosophically don’t believe the words ‘child’ and ‘fight’ should ever be used in the same sentence. I think if you look at the evolution of the laws and the studies of the impact of divorce on families and on children, the litigation model doesn’t work well in a family law context. You will hear that from judges. We sat around and ‘admired the problem’ for years. Collaboration is doing something about it.”

The idea is simple: to shepherd a family through a divorce in the most amicable way possible. Both attorneys agree at the onset that they can’t act as litigators, and the process typically involves financial and mental health professionals. Together, the team helps the family smooth out the problems.

“[Crawford] is such a hard worker, as far as getting out there and talking about how collaborative law can make a difference in how we view and handle divorce,” says Patricia Cunningham, co-president of the CLII and a licensed clinical professional counselor in the mental health field. “I’m completely envious of her energy.”

Family law attorney Jerome Kaplan shares office space with Crawford and has been her co-counsel on some litigated cases. The 82-year-old Kaplan has practiced law since the mid-1950s, and one of the things that keeps him going is the presence of Crawford. “I was in this suite before Sandra was here,” he says. “I look forward to coming here and seeing someone who takes her work seriously but not herself. She’s an icon of collaborative law.”

According to a 2010 survey by Crescent Research in which 933 cases were examined, 80 percent of collaborative divorces are completed in a year or less, and the average cost is less than $35,000. In contrast, Crawford says the average court-settled divorce case in Cook County lasts 18 to 24 months and costs upward of $50,000.

Of course, the collaborative route isn’t for everyone.

“If what you want is a knockdown, drag-out fight, my sitting here saying, ‘Oh, you need to be peaceful,’ isn’t going to work,” says Crawford. “But 97 percent of all litigation cases that are filed wind up in a marital-settlement agreement. So let’s start with a philosophy of resolution first. Let’s at least commit to a couple months to see if we can do that before we go off to the races [with a litigator]. Because the reality is, you can always go off to the races.”

Collaborative cases make up more than half of Crawford’s practice. She served as president of CLII in 2009 to 2010, and currently chairs its committee for passage of the Uniform Collaborative Law Act, which has been adopted by several states in an effort to standardize key elements of the collaborative law process.

Crawford went through her own divorce in the late 1980s, partly, she thinks, because of the difficulty of balancing family and a fledgling career. While parenting twin 4-month-old daughters, she was attending John Marshall and holding down a paralegal job at a law firm where she had started as a receptionist.

“That would be a challenge to any marriage,” she says. Cultural differences put an additional strain on the relationship. His family emigrated from Morocco; Crawford was born and raised in Dublin.

When Ireland’s economy flagged in the mid-1970s, her parents decided to try their luck in the United States. Since her dad, a master painter, had relatives in the Chicago area, the family of six headed there when Crawford was 16. They settled in the suburb of Wood Dale. Says Crawford, “Chicago was good to my father.”

It also presented opportunities to Crawford, who used her earnings at the law firm to help put herself through DePaul University. “I don’t know whether I chose the law or it chose me,” she says. “I was out of undergrad with a degree in political science, and I said, ‘I better do something.’ I was familiar with the law from working at the law firm, so I did that.”

When her marriage ended, she and her husband sought a peaceful resolution for the sake of their children. They went through mediation, a precursor to collaborative law, and the process caught her attention. She trained in mediation herself in 1994.

“I saw how powerful [mediation] could be. If we were able to joint-parent—with our different cultural backgrounds and different career paths—I think anyone can. But you can’t do that alone. We had some really solid advice. Seeing how you can be a problem-solver as an attorney was helpful to me.”

About five years ago, Crawford had what she calls a “crisis of conscience,” during which she reassessed her role in the legal universe after one of her twins expressed interest in attending law school.

“In good conscience, I could not encourage my own child [to go into law],” Crawford says. “That made me think, ‘What are you doing? What is it that would hold you back from recommending what you do to the next generation?’ It’s a hard profession for women. The nurturing—what they call the ‘ethic of care’—that exists is bred out of you. You do a lot of litigation, and you can become very hardened. There are a lot of women who leave the profession.”

Crawford immersed herself in collaborative law. Her office is strewn with books such as Lawyer, Know Thyself and The New Lawyer, which take soul-searching looks at the legal profession. Crawford wants to be both a better lawyer and a better person.

“I continually ask myself, ‘Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?’” she says. “My role is to shepherd the legal process. Having the mediation experience helps you neutralize yourself and understand your role. Can I sit in the middle and say, ‘You’re both right—how can we get you both what you need?’ It’s about compromise.”

More often than not, Crawford’s clients have achieved that compromise. One client contacted Crawford recently to tell her he was planning to remarry and that his ex-wife had been introduced to his future wife—a meeting that produced no nasty verbal exchanges.

“He was saying to me how good his relationship is with his ex-wife,” Crawford says. “They are originally from Minnesota. They still go to family events there together. There’s a normalcy to it. There’s no tension. There are a lot of people who report satisfaction because they’re able to keep their connections to the extended family.”

While Crawford views these stories as proof of the success of collaborative law, the model continues to be met in some traditional corners of the legal system with skepticism. She’s even heard it derided as “hippie law.” Critics say the primary drawback is that collaborative law ties an attorney’s hands.

“There’s a fear about what this will do to lawyering as a business,” Crawford says. “Are we seen as any less protective of our clients? If you take away the ability to have a dogfight [so the argument goes], we won’t be as effective. That’s a mindset that is changing, but it’s where you get the pushback. It’s the stereotype of the bulldog lawyer. You know the advertisements: ‘I will fight for your rights.’”

She adds, “I love a good argument as well as the next person, but can you afford the argument? After the argument is over, there are going to be hard feelings. You leave the courtroom and you now have to parent children together. Life goes on after the [divorce] process, and it comes down to how you leave these people. Did we leave them better than we found them?”

Collaborative law can’t yet be called a trend—of the approximately 90,000 attorneys in Illinois, fewer than 200 are members of CLII.

“But if you look at deeper traditions of the law—[such as] Gandhi—lawyers are the peacemakers,” Crawford says. “There is a tradition in the law of lawyers being wise professionals. I think this warrior, bulldog-litigator [mentality] came out of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—the whole acquisitions-and-mergers thing. The little guy on the street—the sole practitioner, the shops like mine—we’re all here trying to get people through a process with the least disaster possible.”

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