It’s no secret that society has seen an uptick in divorces since the start of the pandemic, but there have also been some silver linings in this unlikely space. Katie Mazurek is a Bozeman, Montana-based attorney with Element Law Group. Focusing on family law, Katie brings a different approach to the way she guides clients through the divorce process. In fact, she recently co-authored a book called, Divorce Better Together, with a former client who helped shape a more collaborative, team approach that is now leveraging technology like Zoom to facilitate her work. Mark was able to sit down with Katie to talk about her approach, her book and how her practice has evolved to help clients discover a healthier way through this often messy process.

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello, I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte, the Risk Manager with Alps. Welcome to Alps In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence Building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. And I’m excited about today’s podcast. I have someone that some other folks at Alps had the pleasure of meeting in person and was so impressed. They said, “Mark, we’ve got to reach out and have some discussions here for the podcast.” And I absolutely agreed. Today I have with me, Katie Mazurek, and I believe Katie you’re practicing in Bozeman. Is that correct?

KATIE MAZUREK:

Yes. I practice in Bozeman and we have offices in Helena as well.

MARK:

Okay. Very good. When I first sort of reached out and looked a little bit about what you do and who you are, I was struck by the name of your law firm. Well, actually, before we get to that, let’s take just a few moments, and can you share a little bit about yourself to our listeners? What do you feel is important that they know about you?

KATIE:

Well, thank you so much for having me today. I’m really excited to be able to talk with you. I think one of the things that’s really important for people to understand about me is that I am a person who really understands pain. I’ve been through some significant things, including my parents divorced when I was 15, a cancer diagnosis when I was 33, when I had two kids, and right, actually when I started Element.

KATIE:

And so my whole kind of purpose in life is to help people through their suffering. And so that’s probably what I’d want people to understand the most, because I know that interfacing with a lawyer can be really scary and really overwhelming and really foreign. And I would hope that if people can see me as just another human who understands what they’re going through, that that makes them feel a lot more comfortable and normalizes their pain a little bit.

MARK:

And may me ask you, I know that at least the bulk of what you do, if I’m understanding correctly is divorce work, but are there other practice areas? Or are you exclusively in the divorce space?

KATIE:

We’re primarily in the family law space. So divorce, custody parenting. We obviously help, if our clients come to us and they’re comfortable with us and they want us to help with the business or something like that, some minor estate planning, we do those things as well.

MARK:

Okay. Very good. And again, I was struck about the name of your group, Element Law Group. I suspect there’s a story here. I’d love to hear it.

KATIE:

So Element came about, when I created the firm, I wanted our clients to have a very different experience than the typical. And what felt at the time was pretty antiquated law centric, law firm experience. I wanted this to be really based on the family and the individual. And so that the term element came from the idea that we’re all made of the same basic things. On an elemental level, who are we? Well we’re people who need love and care and support and guidance. And so the name Element came out and I think it identifies or signifies, who we are pretty well.

MARK:

I love that. That really speaks to me too. That is just very cool. I think that’s awesome.

KATIE:

Thank you.

MARK:

Can we take a moment, in my… We are living in really unusual times, there’s discussions in terms of COVID and all of this happening, geopolitically all over the world here. And in other words, it’s not just COVID, but these 2020 is a crazy time. And there are some descriptions of looking at this as sort of, we’re entering a new normal, and I’m not one that buys into that. I think what we’re going through is a period of rapid change, dramatic change, but change is always present. But we are in a crazy time where change is just, wow. When I think about the divorce space, the family law space, are you finding that these times… Is that changing? Are the needs of your clients… How would you describe what’s happening from your perspective?

KATIE:

Sadly, there’s been a big uptake in our business, and we’ve all talked a lot about what the causes and the factors would be that have caused this real surge. And to the best of our guessing, we think it’s this stress and the uncertainty and the fear. And it’s just kind of in a weak relationship, it’s created the pressure point that’s broken the system. But interestingly, it’s also, I think, a bigger conversation about what’s happened to the practice of law with this COVID and having to adapt. And I think it’s, in some ways can be looked at as a really exciting time because it’s forcing the law and practitioners to come into the modern era as far as how we’re practicing and how we’re interfacing with each other. And that’s something that Element has been pushing for a long time is to say, “Look, there’s all these technological pieces that can make our lives easier and should make our lives easier.” And I’m kind of excited to see that happening on the larger scale.

MARK:

I know you have written a book, I believe it’s called, Divorce Better Together, and you coauthored this, is this with your partner?

KATIE:

This is with a former client of mine.

MARK:

Oh, really?

KATIE:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Rob Irizarry.

MARK:

Wow. How did this come about?

KATIE:

Well, Rob started as a client in the collaborative process and for people who are the uninitiated, the collaborative process is a team approach to a divorce. We use two lawyers, a neutral mental health person and a neutral financial person. And that creates a professional team that helps a married couple divorce in a more amicable, fully supported way.

KATIE:

So Rob was my client in a collaborative setting. And unfortunately he was actually… He says he was my first failure. He and his wife fell out of the collaborative process pretty early on. And so he was pushed into the litigation path and his experience there and mirrors my experience with the compare, contrast the litigation world with the collaborative world. And he felt very passionately about the importance of collaborative and the value of collaborative. And he and I struck up a friendship and have been very close friends ever since, and he wants to change the world like I do. And so we coauthored this book.

MARK:

Is the book somewhat of a description of how you practice in your space? Is it a guide book of where you’d like to see the law go? Can you fill me in a little bit more about?

KATIE:

Sure. It’s a very short, easy read and the intent is just to get collaborative in the minds of people who are starting to contemplate which divorce process is right for them. So it really is the personal stories. Rob’s personal story of being in the collaborative process and then litigation and my personal story of watching my parents really suffer through a nasty litigated divorce and what that did to my family. And then now as a practitioner practicing collaborative. So it does explain the process. It’s definitely informational, but it’s also meant to connect with the reader on that kind of emotional journey and experience of divorce.

MARK:

I liked what you were talking about in terms of looking at COVID and seeing this in so many ways as an opportunity, are you finding, first courts are closed, is this an opportunity to really accelerate the collaborative process? Are you able to do more of this? Can we sort of flesh out what’s happening?

KATIE:

Oh, sure. I think the collaborative process is always going to… It’s so flexible and it can adapt to whatever situation that we need. And what we have found is really interesting is that the collaborative sessions that are held through Zoom or whatever video conferencing platform, they’re really great. Because there’s the side channels and things that the practitioners can type to each other privately, I can type to my client privately. And so I wouldn’t say that necessarily in terms of volume or anything, we still have the access that we need on the litigation front to the courts, but the whole drive of collaborative is to put the divorce process in the family’s hands. And certainly these times are a call to action for families to really embrace that opportunity where it exists.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. Do you find… I can appreciate, and I really need to go pick up your book and by the way, I believe it’s available… Just to, if others are interested on Amazon? Or it’s not?

KATIE:

Amazon. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MARK:

Yes. And I just want to be clear for everybody Divorce Better Together. And it’s by Katie Mazurek. And I’m sorry, the name of your coauthor again?

KATIE:

Rob Irizarry.

MARK:

Rob Irizarry. So folks, just to let you know it’s out there. Do you find… I’ll go back and say, my wife and I we’re both second marriages. So we’ve been through the process. My wife’s divorce was a litigated divorce that went all the way to the State Supreme Court. And it was just one of these crazy [crosstalk 00:00:11:17], horrible kinds of things. Mine was more of a… We didn’t use the collaborative process, but we did sit down between the two of us and really work through most of the issues.

MARK:

And honestly just had one lawyer between the two of us, be mostly a scrivener, we stayed in the ethical bounds, to put it that way, say the lawyer that assisted us. And I think we divorced well. I would say post-divorce, there were some issues that I think a collaborative process might’ve helped us avoid, but I share all that because what I’m curious about is, is part of what you’re trying to accomplish with the book… Are you writing to lawyers or you’re writing to people? You see where I’m going? Is the challenge here to create awareness and appreciation of the collaborative process to the clients? Are we trying to sell this process, you see?

KATIE:

We’re trying to educate people, families really. So parents and married couples that this process is available and that this process is available at any point in your journey. And so, like in your case, if there were… Did you have children?

MARK:

Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

KATIE:

Okay. [crosstalk 00:12:58]. And maybe I don’t mean to pry.

MARK:

No, it’s fine.

KATIE:

So it could be, we see people who have gone through the litigated process and then they have these children whose needs inevitably change. And the dynamic inevitably changes. And we have new parties coming on as significant others and things like that. And so they can adopt the collaborative process after a divorce and just get the support they need around some of these bigger decisions or even smaller decisions. But really what it comes down to, and I think most relationships come down to this, is communication. And so you have a team that can help facilitate and model healthy communication. And then also give you good information to make better decisions.

MARK:

Do you find most people when they have an opportunity to learn a bit about this process and what you were doing, are they pretty receptive? Are you pretty successful moving people in this direction? Are you finding some resistance to it? Does it work better for some and not others?

KATIE:

So the collaborative process was started in Minnesota about 28, 29 years ago. In 2013, two practitioners, myself included, went to Arizona to get trained in this. And since then, we’ve cultivated the collaborative community here in Montana. And now there’s collaborative practitioners all over the state. And what I’ve noticed since bringing it here way back in 2013 is that collaborative is the answer that clients were already for, but didn’t know existed.

KATIE:

And to further answer your question, absolutely, there are people that are better suited for collaborative cases than others. But I don’t want to kind of perpetuate a misconception, which is that couples who are high conflict or when there’s difficult issues in a case that they’re not appropriate for collaborative somehow, that’s been proven false repeatedly. Really what it comes down to in my experience is the strength and experience level of the team that is helping the family get through this.

MARK:

So it seems what I’m hearing is, part of what’s going on here and part of your interest initially, it’s the collaborative process is going to be less painful, more positive, better outcomes. So you started, you want to try to help people through pain. And a divorce process is certainly a painful process. I’ve never seen a situation that was just roses all the way through. Do you find as a practitioner using this process, comparing yourself to the traditional divorce lawyer that does a lot of litigation, is there a wellness component to this is? Would you encourage other lawyers… Because to me, I like how you’ve described some of this and looking even now in the midst of just this global pandemic, looking at an opportunity, and I think that’s such an incredible way to move forward through any change. Always looking… We can’t change what has happened. All we can do is define ourselves by how we respond to it. But with courts being closed, is there a message here? Would you have a message to other practitioners and say, “Look, this can create less pain for you as a practitioner too. And your wellness can help others.” I’m I understanding this correctly?

KATIE:

Well, I think so. I struggled a lot when I started with litigating family law cases, because what’s a win in a family law case. Is it a dollar award? Is it more time with the child? It’s really kind of a, almost a [inaudible 00:17:46] concept to think about it, when you’re talking about human life. And so I really struggled with like, “What am I doing here? What value am I bringing? What is the long-term outcome for these families? When I’ve just put on this testimony, that’s just biting and terrible towards another party. This is what we have to do or I feel what you have to do.”

KATIE:

And so the collaborative practice is the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it is far and away, the best I’ve ever felt about something that I’m putting forward in the world. When you go to these conferences, you see mostly practitioners in their 50s and 60s. And the reason for that is they just got to a point where they couldn’t do the litigation, the burden of litigation, the toxicity of litigation. And so they had to do something different. And I want to be clear. It’s very hard work. It’s very hard work. Because at least with litigation, you can say, “Hey, that’s not what the court’s going to consider. We’re not going to talk about that. I’m sorry that happened to you.” And kind of have the appropriate amount of empathy, but move the case forward because you’re working within that strict legal lens.

MARK:

Exactly.

KATIE:

And then the collaborative process it’s, the law is just a framework and what the family builds within that is completely up to them. And so I kind of, the analogy I use is, look, the law, the framework is going to say, “You need to build a car. And that car has to have four wheels, an engine and steering wheel.” And whether you build a porch or a dump truck, that’s up to you. And so that kind of freedom for us practitioners who are used to being in these really tight roles that can be really uncomfortable for us. And that’s why we have a team.

MARK:

And so what drives the… You say this is the hardest you’ve ever worked. It’s clear just, the audience is just listening, but we’re viewing each other here and you’re very passionate about this. It seems to be very fulfilling to you, very important, but what is the challenge here? Why is this so hard? Is it trying to keep people invested in the process? Is it the emotions of all that’s going on? Is it crazy tangential issues that the traditional path isn’t necessarily going to deal with? Why is this such a challenge? And challenge have to be a bad thing, this is what I’m trying to get across to our listeners here. But why is this so hard?

KATIE:

Well, you’re taking two people who are in conflict and you’re asking them to listen to each other, to meaningfully listen to each other and to communicate better. And that is exceptionally hard. People come into the divorce process with a feeling of scarcity, of, “Oh my goodness, I’m losing, I’m changing.” We took one whole, and we’re making it into two, which is never as much as half. If that makes sense.

MARK:

Yes. It does. It does.

KATIE:

Right? So because you lose the economy of efficiency and going into two households and things like that. So a real scarcity mindset, and it’s very hard to get positive work out of people who are rotating around the access of fear and not enough and uncertainty and, “What’s going to happen to me?” And so in the collaborative space, we really meet them in that scarcity feeling, whereas in a litigation setting, I can just say, “Ah, I know that that thing happened to you, and I’m so sorry, but that’s not on the view or the horizon for the court.”

MARK:

Right. Right.

KATIE:

And so we make space for all of that in the collaborative model, and that’s what’s kind of messy and hard. And when you’re trying to help people move forward through that, it’s a lot.

MARK:

So how do you stay sane?

KATIE:

Right. That’s such a good question. Well, we lean on the mental health professional quite a bit, and who helps us understand like, okay, this is in your box and this isn’t. Part of the really hard thing about collaborative is that I feel like I’m invested in the family and in a much different way than I am in litigation, just by virtue of the differences of the process. And so I guess I’m still working on that, with every single case it’s different and I’m still figuring it out. But it’s always been worth the effort, the outcomes are really incredible.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. I want to be very respectful of your time here and appreciate the chat we’ve had. I don’t mean to put you on the spot and I think you’re up for this. We have, obviously, the listening base here are all legal professionals. I’d ask for two comments maybe, in terms of closing comments. One would be, what would you have to say to encourage lawyers that are more focused on the traditional litigated model? What would you say to them, say, be open to this? Why should they move in this direction, at least at times? And then the other piece, or the second half of this would be, there are lots of lawyers, because not all clients are to want to do this. So still need to stay in the litigated space. Are there learnings or takeaways from your experience in the collaborative space that might be beneficial to help if you jump back into the litigated space. And any other closing comments you’d have, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on those two sides.

KATIE:

The most important lesson that I’ve learned about working alongside the traditional litigated attorneys is to have a relationship and try to have an understanding between the two very different practices. So my first part of that would be an invitation that, if you’re a litigator and you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, “Oh, that is never something I would do.” That’s fine. The world absolutely needs really strong litigators who are responsible-

MARK:

Absolutely.

KATIE:

… in handling families. But also let’s go to coffee and let’s talk about what I do so that we can compliment one another. But for the practitioners who are thinking about, who see litigation, the issues with litigation, and maybe have some heartache of their own about how they’re practicing, the collaborative doors is always open and you can get trained relatively inexpensively and join a practice group and try it out. And maybe it’s for you, maybe it’s not, but it’s still a great way. You’re going to get some [inaudible 00:26:06]. You’re going to get some really great information.

KATIE:

It’s going to challenge your worldview, which kind of goes to your second point, which is we address these family law cases in a very lawyer centric, law centric way. And what I’ve really learned is one, active listening. I’ve learned to ask more questions and dive deeper into the answers. And I am shocked at how much more I’ve learned and repeatedly have used that skill in my litigation practice, because the last thing any of us wants is to get up in front of a judge and be in the middle of a hearing or a trial and get caught flat footed. And when we make that investment and time and energy into our clients, I think it yields a better outcome and a better experience for them overall.

KATIE:

So I would say that that’s kind of the compliment between the two worlds and I don’t see them as completely divergent and separate and apart, I see them as working together and kind of the left hand and the right hand.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. I love that. And your comment of active listening really strikes a chord with me. I think at times it’s too easy, regardless of what sandbox we’re in, as lawyers in terms of practice. Just to, this is how it’s always been done. We think we know what’s right. We think we understand what people want. There’s a lot of assumptions. When I was practicing, there was involved in situation where I really thought it was all about the money. We had to get the most amount of money. And when I finally learned it had nothing to do with the money at all, because I wasn’t listening, the matter resolved very, very quickly, and it was a great outcome for everybody involved. So I simply want to underscore that and thank you for saying it that, let’s put aside at times some of our assumptions and really take the time to understand and listen, what is the need of the client? And we are here, we are in someone else’s employ.

KATIE:

Right. At service.

MARK:

Exactly, and thank you for that. That’s sums it up perfectly. And we are in service of others. And we can’t forget that. We need to be an advocate at times. And sometimes in the litigation space, very, very strong advocates. There are situations where people need that because they can’t advocate for themselves. But that doesn’t mean that we get a pass on just really trying to understand who is this person, how do I best serve them? So I’ve just tried to summarize some things that I’m taking away from this conversation.

KATIE:

Sure. [crosstalk 00:00:29:01].

MARK:

And I think it’s, I’m thrilled to see that you have taken such a role. And a lead position here in Montana to try to really expand and bring this new, or a slightly different, less adversarial model into Montana. Thank you for very much. I just think that you’re doing some wonderful, wonderful work. Do you have any final closing thought that you’d like to share?

KATIE:

Oh my goodness. Well obviously thank you so much for having me. If there are attorneys or other professionals, even clients, potential clients listening to this. If you have questions or you want to have a conversation about this, my contact information is easy to define, that’s elementlaw group.com.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. elementlawgroup, one word, elementlawgroup.com. So there you go. And I invite folks to go out and take a look at the website and go take a look at the book. Well, again, Katie, thank you very much.

KATIE:

Thank you.

MARK:

For those of you listening, I hope you found something of value today, and it’s always a pleasure to take a little time and visit. So if there’s anything else you’d like in terms of topics, questions, concerns, you do not need to be an Alps insurer to reach out to me, feel free at any time. My email is mbass@alpsinsurance.com. mbass@alpsinsurance.com. Happy to help in anything at any time. If there’s ever anything I can do for you. So thanks for listening again, folks. You all have a great day. Stay safe. Stay well. Stay connected. Bye-bye.

 

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