What can you do if, as a lawyer, you want to negotiate a divorce cooperatively from the outset of a case? The Divorce Cooperation Institute (DCI), an organization of more than 70 Wisconsin lawyers, has established a general process to provide a cooperative and efficient negotiation process to improve the quality of divorce by using cooperative negotiation whenever appropriate. This article summarizes the results of a study of DCI involving in-depth telephone interviews and several surveys of DCI members. (DCI also sponsors educational programs and offers practice tools to improve divorce practice generally, though this article focuses on its negotiation practices.)

DCI’s approach generally involves an explicit process agreement at the outset, which may be written or oral. The agreement is based on principles of: (1) acting civilly, (2) responding promptly to reasonable requests for information, (3) disclosing all relevant financial information, (4) obtaining joint expert opinions before obtaining individual expert opinions, (5) obtaining expert input before requesting a custody study or appointment of a guardian ad litem, and (5) good-faith negotiation sessions, including four-way sessions where appropriate, to reach fair compromises based on valid information. (For the full version of DCI’s principles, see its website at http://cooperativedivorce.org/about/principles.cfm.) When the parties reach an impasse, many Cooperative lawyers turn to mediation as the next resort.

Although many divorce lawyers negotiate cooperatively at times, DCI members say that an established Cooperative Practice provides greater predictability and confidence. They find that DCI has created a legal culture where cooperation is the norm in Cooperative cases. Traditional litigation-oriented practice normally does not involve an explicit process agreement and is not based on a pre-established set of negotiation principles. Although DCI members sometimes use litigation procedures (such as formal discovery or contested hearings) in Cooperative cases, they are the last resort and generally intended to advance the Cooperative process. For example, one lawyer said that a party may need some “reality therapy” of hearing from a judge at a temporary order hearing and then get right back to negotiation for the permanent resolution.[outtake]Cooperative Practice differs from Collaborative Practice in that Cooperative Practice does not involve a disqualification agreement and thus Cooperative lawyers are not disqualified from representing clients in litigation if needed.[/outtake] Thus DCI members retain the option of using the court as a resource in advancing a Cooperative negotiation process. The Cooperative process can also improve the quality of litigation when contested hearings are needed. One lawyer said that when there are trials or hearings in a Cooperative cases, the dynamics tend to be more cooperative than in litigation-oriented cases. She said that in Cooperative cases there is often much more dialogue to develop a “mutual game plan” and to narrow the issues to be tried. Instead, the hearings have been very satisfying experiences where both sides presented good legal arguments about genuine differences of opinion and the hearings have not been personal or adversarial.

Cooperative Practice differs from Collaborative Practice in that Cooperative Practice does not involve a disqualification agreement and thus Cooperative lawyers are not disqualified from representing clients in litigation if needed. About half of DCI members use Collaborative Practice in some cases because they believe that the disqualification agreement can contribute to a positive negotiation process. About half of DCI members do not use Collaborative Practice, concerned that the disqualification agreement causes parties to fear that their lawyers will abandon them and put pressure on them in negotiations. Some are concerned that Collaborative Practice generally violates legal ethics rules. Virtually all of the DCI lawyers in the study believe that Collaborative Practice is not appropriate in cases involving serious domestic abuse. (Tables comparing DCI members’ perceptions of litigation-oriented, Cooperative, and Collaborative Practice are included below.)

DCI members value Cooperative Practice because they can tailor the process to the parties’ needs. In Cooperative cases, lawyers use many of the same elements as in Collaborative Practice – such as four-way meetings, joint experts, and individual coaches. Many DCI members – including many who use Collaborative Practice – find Collaborative process in Wisconsin to be relatively formal and standardized and believe that it sometimes involves more of these elements than needed. DCI members report using process elements only as needed in Cooperative cases and thus they believe that the process generally produces good outcomes for families as efficiently as possible.

This study suggests that when parties want to negotiate cooperatively through lawyers, they should consider options including both Collaborative and Cooperative Practice. Collaborative Practice may be particularly appropriate when well-informed parties need or want a disqualification agreement to negotiate collaboratively. It is not appropriate in all cases, however, and some parties and lawyers may want a negotiation process with access to the legal system that does not necessarily terminate the Cooperative process. Cooperative Practice may be appropriate when parties want to cooperate but at least one of them does not want to use a Collaborative process because of the disqualification agreement. Parties also may prefer Cooperative Practice when they (1) trust the other party to some extent but are uncertain about that person’s intent to cooperate, (2) do not want to lose their lawyer’s services in litigation if needed, (3) cannot afford to pay a substantial retainer to hire new litigation counsel in event of an impasse, (4) fear that the other side would exploit the disqualification agreement to gain an advantage, (5) fear getting stuck in a negotiation process because of financial or other pressures, and/or (6) have a history of domestic abuse.

In addition to concerns about the disqualification agreement, parties and lawyers may want an alternative to Collaborative Practice if they want to tailor the process to their needs differently from local Collaborative Practice norms in their area. For example, in some areas, parties cannot use a Collaborative process if they do not want to work almost exclusively in four-way meetings or if the opposing counsel has not been trained in Collaborative law.

Lawyers who want to do Cooperative Practice may use or adapt DCI’s procedures. Although DCI uses this process for divorce cases, the procedures can be adapted for almost any other kind of case. Lawyers can do so on an ad hoc basis and/or by organizing a group of like-minded practitioners. Cooperative Practice may be particularly appropriate when the lawyers have worked together cooperatively in the past and trust each other. If appropriate, the lawyers might convene a four-way meeting early in the case to jointly identify issues, exchange information, and plan how to handle the case in the future. Lawyers may also organize practice groups to promote Cooperative Practice. Such groups can help develop practice norms and procedures and help lawyers develop reputations for cooperation.

The complete results of the study are in “Practical Insights From an Empirical Study of Cooperative Lawyers in Wisconsin,” 2008 Journal of Dispute Resolution 203. To download a copy of this article and more information about Cooperative Practice, including other models, see http://www.law.missouri.edu/lande/publications.htm#ccl.

As legal practices evolve with the changing societal fabric, it becomes imperative for lawyers to approach sensitive subjects such as divorce with finesse and understanding. The Divorce Cooperation Institute (DCI) in Wisconsin has pioneered a cooperative approach to divorce negotiations, setting a precedent for other legal professionals to emulate. Their methodology, based on the principles of transparency, mutual respect, and genuine effort for resolution, has enhanced the quality of legal negotiations, especially in divorce cases.

A critical aspect that makes DCI’s approach unique is its flexibility. Not only does it provide a cooperative foundation, but it also allows for adaptability based on individual case needs. While Collaborative Practice, another negotiation method, is distinct and requires lawyers to withdraw from a case if negotiations break down, the Cooperative Practice, as employed by DCI, does not possess this restriction, offering more flexibility.

Furthermore, this study underscores the importance of developing a “legal culture” where cooperation is paramount. Such a culture ensures that even when formal procedures like litigation are required, they still advance the spirit of cooperation, minimizing adversarial confrontations.

When comparing DCI’s Cooperative Practice with other practices like Collaborative Practice, the research suggests that each has its merits. However, the Cooperative Practice shines in scenarios where there are concerns about the rigid nature of Collaborative Practice. This adaptability is crucial, especially in complex legal terrains where no one-size-fits-all solution exists.

For practitioners considering Cooperative Practice, adopting DCI’s framework or crafting a tailor-made process by understanding the principles is the way forward. It’s a promising direction for the legal world, emphasizing empathy and mutual respect while upholding legal tenets.


What is the Divorce Cooperation Institute (DCI)?

    • DCI is an organization of over 70 Wisconsin lawyers aiming to improve divorce negotiations using cooperative methods.

How does the Cooperative Practice differ from the Collaborative Practice?

    • While both focus on cooperative negotiations, Cooperative Practice does not involve a disqualification agreement, meaning lawyers can still represent clients in litigation if required.

Why do some lawyers prefer Cooperative Practice?

    • They value its flexibility, absence of a disqualification agreement, and the ability to tailor the process to individual case needs.

Are the DCI’s methods only applicable to divorce cases?

    • No, although primarily used for divorce cases, the procedures can be adapted for nearly any other kind of legal case.

Where can one access the complete study on Cooperative Lawyers in Wisconsin?

    • The full study, authored by Dr. John Lande, can be downloaded from the University of Missouri School of Law’s website.

Note: For a detailed analysis and findings of the study, readers can refer to Dr. John Lande’s comprehensive report available for download.

Download Dr. Lande’s 64 page study in pdf format by clicking the Attachment link at the bottom of this article.


John Lande is Associate Professor and Director, LL.M. Program in Dispute Resolution, University of Missouri School of Law. J.D. Hastings College of Law, Ph.D, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This article is reprinted in part and made available for download with the permission of author.