Recently The New York Times reported about the formation of an online divorce service called “It’s Over Easy” (“Angelina Jolie’s Lawyer Now Offers Quickie Divorces Online,” by Amy Sohn, February 4, 2018). This service is essentially an online questionnaire that is filled out by one or both parties and creates the documents needed to divorce in California and New York, with plans to expand to a few other states. While the founder, Laura Wasser, is a celebrity lawyer, it is meant to appeal to couples who cannot afford the cost of lawyers or even mediation.
It is absolutely true that divorce is expensive, difficult, and time consuming. As a client once complained aptly, “Joy, it is so easy to get married, and so hard to get divorced!” This is particularly true in New York, where the forms are complicated and cumbersome, and are really designed for lawyers to fill out, rather than the participants.
But that doesn’t mean that it is advisable to use an online service for a process as emotionally fraught and with such long-term implications as divorce.
The article quotes Ms. Wasser as saying, “In mediation it’s one unbiased person telling you the law. Our unbiased person is the artificial intelligence in the computer or somebody to talk to.” There should be no mistake – artificial intelligence cannot replace mediation.
There are three parts to the divorce process: decision making, drafting the detailed agreement, and writing and filing the divorce forms. Mediation and the collaborative process both concentrate on the first part — thoughtful, communicative decision making about financial support, division of assets, and the parenting plan. This is almost always the most difficult part of the process for the participants — a reality all but ignored by the article. Any online program will, by its nature, only work if decisions are already made.
There are certainly some couples who can sit at the local coffee shop and work out the details themselves, if they have a little bit of guidance as to the questions that need to be answered. But in my experience, they are few and far between. This is because a lot of couples simply have too many issues to resolve, particularly if they have complicated assets or if they have children. In addition, by the time couples are getting divorced, the communication has broken down.
The presence of a third person may be needed to help participants stay focused on the tasks at hand, on not reliving old hurts, and on making sure both voices are being heard. I find that mediation takes experience and attention, skill and knowledge — when I mediate, I am constantly weighing what to emphasize, when there are points of agreement, how to reframe, how to listen to what is not being said…These are all things that cannot be replicated by a computer. Mediation is an art as much as a science.
Even the drafting cannot be easily done by a computer. While I use a template for the agreements I draft, I work hard to make sure that the agreement is understandable, clear, and properly reflects my clients’ intentions. I want to make sure that it will be a durable document, one that they can rely on year after year, if and when there are questions or disagreements about what was actually said. In other words, writing the agreement, involves some artistry, as well.
Clients who go through the mediation process are creating a new model for problem solving — one in which each voice is heard, one in which clients work to understand each other because that is important, and one in which they make the children’s needs a high priority.
Computers are capable of many things — but they are not yet at a place where they can deal with the complicated emotional relationships of the family. You get what you pay for.
Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq.
Rosenthal Law & Mediation
225 Broadway, Suite 2605
New York, New York 10007
Phone : 212.532.4704