The Orange County couple was looking to divorce as amicably as possible and sought the help of a mediator. But when they went to their first several meetings, it seemed more like therapy sessions. “We had made the decision and weren’t there to process our feelings,” the client, herself an attorney, told California Business Journal. “We just wanted to have a clear path through the process with someone who wasn’t trying to rack up billable hours in a contentious litigation.”
That’s when they decided to work with Colleen McNamee, whose Orange County, California family law firm, McNamee Mediations, specializes in helping couples end their marriage and divide assets as painlessly as possible.
Litigation sets couples up as adversaries. Sometimes that is just the reality of the situation. But if there are two parties willing to take a path that leads to outcomes they can both be satisfied with, mediation can be a helpful and hopeful alternative.
Ms. McNamee had planned on becoming a lawyer for as long as she can remember. After law school, an early experience during a bitter divorce litigation she was handling left her wondering what she had gotten herself into.
“Coming out of law school, I didn’t realize a career in mediation was even possible,” she recalls. “But after quickly realizing divorce litigation was not for me, I discovered mediation and that was it for me – the perfect career niche.”
A couple who were family friends of Ms. McNamee had a mediation certification program and through a course they taught she gained her General Mediation Certification. She then went on to obtain her Family Law Mediation Certification, thereby earning her the title of Certified Family Law Mediation Specialist, still the only mediator with this certification in Orange County.
The next question was: could she grow her own practice in this niche area?
Yes, she could, and now she has 24 years as a Family Law mediator on the books. What has led to such longevity? With other options out there, why would couples agree to a waiting list with McNamee Mediations? Clients point to Ms. McNamee’s knowledge of the law, clear process, and an approach that makes sure each party’s voice is heard.
Clients stress how the clarity and straightforwardness of the process helped them navigate a time that is difficult under the best of circumstances. Ms. McNamee’s way of working fostered those better circumstances.
One client, reflecting on her and her ex-husband’s experience with Ms. McNamee said, “I’m a lawyer, so I knew exactly how transactional and contentious litigation could be. We didn’t want that, for the kids or for each other.”
The client goes on to say, “Litigators are motivated to get more for their client and drag things out as much as possible, however ugly things get. No one needs that negativity added to the process of ending a marriage. Colleen offers the opposite of this.”
Experience and credentials as both a lawyer and mediator has big advantages. Ms. McNamee can offer legal advice, and has an eye out for everyone’s best interest, even when she discovers problems beyond the marriage.
Recently, as part of a divorce mediation process, Ms. McNamee was analyzing a high net worth couples’ business books and found some numbers that didn’t add up. “One client was a physician who owned 3 medical practices with partners,” says Ms. McNamee. “I discovered one of the partners had been siphoning money out of the business unbeknownst to the other partners, during my evaluation!” While discovering financial fraud is not an everyday occurrence, having the knowledge, skill set and processes in place to uncover these sorts of problems is part of how McNamee Mediations does business.
There are also clients who are not a good fit for mediation. “I am here to provide a successful framework for two people to work through a difficult process,” Ms. McNamee says. “I’m not here to take sides, but to guide the parties to an outcome both people can live with.” When there is an overt power imbalance, like a situation where there is an active restraining order in place, that is not a good fit for mediation. Or if someone comes to Ms. McNamee with a list of demands: “If you are coming to the table with a ‘my way or the highway’ mindset, you will not be a good candidate. Mediation is about working together in the spirit of compromise and fairness.”
McNamee says a less contentious process helps not only during the divorce, but afterwards. “If you have kids, you will still have to co-parent when everything is said and done, so why would you want to take a difficult situation and make it even worse,” she says. “You will be at family events where you all want to have as pleasant a time as possible. You should be able to have that, at a minimum for your children’s sake.”
Mediation sets up a climate where the familial connections that remain can be maintained with as much respect and dignity as possible.
“We have friends who had a very good experience of mediation with Colleen,” says Mark Mardock. “We had other friends who spent tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys. California law says you split assets, so why should we fight and spend all that money?”
“My ex-wife and I had known each other for 50 years,” he adds. “The last thing I wanted to do was get into a process that would permanently damage our ability to be friends.”
Considering the difference between mediation and litigation, Ms. McNamee puts it in battlefield terms.
“Litigation is like tossing a grenade in the air and you don’t quite know where it’s going to land, but you know it’s going to cause a whole lot of damage when it does. So, if we can put the pin back in with mediation by helping to explain the law, explain options, and help people feel validated and heard, that invariably leads to better outcomes.”
She takes that philosophy and works toward settlement terms that in many cases are better than what the couple could have gotten in court, with the additional expense and drama of litigation. “We have more creative wiggle room with the types of settlement terms we can craft and get the court to approve in mediation. This often leads to final terms that are even better than what could have been accomplished through litigation.”
Mediation does not ignore the emotion of what is going on, but neither does it focus solely on the emotional aspect of divorce. “If I ignored the emotion of it, we would never get anywhere,” Ms. McNamee says. “But at the same time, I have to keep the process on track and moving forward.”
It is this fine balance Ms. McNamee creates that clients respond to. “When my ex-husband and I were in the process, there were some moments of foot dragging,” says one client. “Colleen kept us focused on the end goal of getting to the other side of this difficult process and kept things moving forward.”
No one gets married planning for divorce. But when two people drift apart and marriage is no longer the right choice for anyone, mediation with a highly skilled mediator can be the difference between irredeemable conflict and destruction versus a peaceable end to a marriage relationship. Just ask anyone who’s gone through the process at McNamee Mediations.