The start-up trying to make divorce less painful

Split wedding cake
Image caption Clean break? Only the death of a partner is more stressful than divorce, according to experts

"I remember being asked by one of the lawyers: If you are stranded on a desert island which parent would you choose to live with?"

Michelle Crosby was just nine years old when she had to stand in a court room and tell a judge which parent she wanted to live with, a heart-breaking choice for a small girl to have to make in the most adult of environments.

Divorce is considered to be the second most stressful life event most of us will ever go through. For children especially, it can seem like the end of the world.

"I had a clear insight that this is a very broken space. And that moment became the catalyst for me knowing that I wanted to go to law school and I wanted to fix it," she says.

"I wanted to make sure that there are no other kids that get put in that position."

Image caption Michelle Crosby and Wevorce co-founder Jeff Reynolds

It takes two

She became a lawyer, working with families in the same situation she had found herself in.

Thirteen years on, she decided the time had come to go it alone and to try to make the process more collaborative and less painful.

After studying mediation training at Harvard, Ms Crosby put her ideas into practice working with families in Boise, Idaho.

"I self-funded it for a few years and watched quite a few families through it. I realised we had something, and then we started to realise that we had identified archetypes," she says.

"Even though lawyers were typically treating each case as unique, I could clearly see the patterns."

The final piece of the puzzle was the technology.

"In this day and age, where most of us live with iPhones and iPads, there is no reason why we can't be using these existing technologies to help [families] through this transition.

"So many of the conflicts that happen with families are caused by lawyer miscommunication, or something getting stuck on someone's desk or in a court process."

Digital divide

The result was

It is a software service that is accessible from anywhere that has an internet connection - so your smartphone, tablet or laptop - because it is held in the cloud.

The six-step programme guides families through decisions relating to finances, property, and most importantly, the children.

Couples are screened to make sure this is right for them - where there has been domestic violence or abuse, for example, this would not be appropriate.

The next step is the creation of an amicable divorce roadmap, working with a legal architect - an attorney qualified to deal with family mediation - and other experts if need be.

Image caption Work it through: Because the software is cloud-based it can be accessed anywhere, letting couples work though it at their own pace

"If they don't have a lot of complicated assets [and] they seem to be fairly amicable, they may only need three in-person meetings and they can do most of it online," says Ms Crosby.

"If they have a really large, complicated financial estate, they may need more meetings and it may take a little bit more time."

Because the aim is to keep parties out of the courts, and because of the efficiencies the technology offers, the company says fees range from $3,000 to $15,000, a considerable saving.

Couples are also provided with customised educational materials - videos, games or text - that work through different situations, including the realities of co-parenting.

"For example, if one child asks you whether they can get their ears pierced, is that something that you both need to decide together, or is it something that you are okay with one parent deciding?

"The court may not really care, but you as a co-parent are definitely going to care about it. Because the number one source of conflict comes from someone making a decision that someone else thought they had the ability to weigh in on."

The other role of the technology is as a virtual case manager.

"Most attorneys have boxes and boxes of paper, and it requires three touches by the attorney, the paralegal and the assistant," says Ms Crosby.

"This technology allows everyone to be seeing where the case is, where it is stuck, what are the remaining steps that need to be done."

Image caption Child's play: The aim of the software is to make sure that parents maintain a relationship that will let them co-parent effectively

Legal advice

Michael Stutman is a partner at global law firm Mishcon de Reya. He is head of their New York office's family practice, has written a book on divorce and is the current president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, New York Chapter.

"People when they are in the midst of this stuff are disabled in many ways," he says.

"They are like deer looking at headlights. And they do need people to help them become aware of the options that are available to them."

But this type of approach, like any type of mediation, isn't for everyone according to Mr Stutman.

"There is a whole class of people that are not suitable to this. Areas where there is abuse at any level, whether it is physical abuse, whether it is viciousness in terms of language, whether it is economic bullying, whether it is [emotional abuse], the victim of that poor behaviour should probably not be placed in a circumstance where they can continue to be victimised."

Image caption Michael Stutman says mediation can only work with people who are willing to listen

"And then there are those people who are just very ineffective communicators and maybe they need help communicating. And I don't know if a mediator, this neutral person whose goal is to get an agreement, is the right person there."

Mr Stutman is also keen to stress that, as with any situation, the parties should feel comfortable that their lawyer is competent.

"That doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater," he says.

"I think that there are many people who could probably do well with this kind of a process, and if someone has figured out a way to harness cloud technology to buffer the discussion in some way or guide the discussion, I think that's wonderful.

"I am not threatened by it. I don't think any practicing lawyer would be threatened by it, or should be threatened by it, because I don't think it is meant to take the place of what lawyers do."

The law has traditionally been slow to embrace new technology, meaning there is huge potential for start-ups in the profession. Silicon Valley seems to agree - Wevorce is backed by influential seed accelerator Y Combinator.

The Stanford Centre for Legal Informatics (CodeX), a joint venture between the university's law school and computer science department, is another factor to consider, and is behind some of the most successful start-ups aiming to capitalise on the gap.

Wevorce recently expanded from being available in only a select group of US cities, to being available across the country. The company has already fielded requests from other countries.

For Ms Crosby, the most important indicator of success is their clients.

"We've worked with over a hundred families, and kept all but one out of court, which we are really proud of, because it really allows the families to get back to parenting and not stuck in this difficult transition."

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