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Robert Merlin: Advancing the Collaborative Approach

Robert J. Merlin believes that divorce shouldn’t be an angry and expensive adversarial process. Instead, the Coral Gables attorney is a staunch advocate for taking a collaborative approach to resolve the key issues and reach an amicable settlement.

“I am passionate about successfully resolving my clients’ cases in a way that positions them favorably for the future,” said Merlin, who is board certified in marital and family law. “Rather than prolong a conflict that uses up their financial and emotional resources, many people want to move forward with their individual lives, establish effective co-parenting relationships, and preserve as many of their assets as possible.”

Since the 1990s, Merlin has built a successful practice in the areas of divorce, time-sharing, child support, alimony, paternity, pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, and same sex and unmarried couple partnership agreements. As an attorney and certified family mediator, Merlin helps couples negotiate a settlement of their differences.

“I believe that clients benefit most when disputes are resolved without court intervention,” Merlin says. “ Since more than 90 percent of dissolution of marriage actions settle before trial, the real question is what method will be most effective in resolving all of the issues.”

An Accounting Background

A native of South Florida, Merlin began thinking at an early age about a professional career in medicine, accounting or law. He went to the University of Florida, where he earned an undergraduate degree in accounting before obtaining his law degree in 1978.

“Accounting turned out to be an excellent preparation for law school,” he says. “It helped build my critical thinking skills as well as an ability to understand the numbers.” In his last year in law school, Merlin traveled abroad to study international law at Cambridge University and The Institute of Law of the Polish Academy of Science.

While Merlin knew he wanted to be an attorney, he didn’t plan on going into family law. “I would advise law students not to rule out any of the practice fields,” he adds. “You might be surprised where your career takes you.”

After joining the Bar, Merlin went to work for Myers, Kaplan, Levinson, Kenin & Richards in Miami, handling commercial litigation, and then joined veteran attorney Richard Milstein, his former high school teacher. After handling a family case, Merlin decided to gain more experience in that field and went to work with veteran Miami family law attorney Burton Young. He then opened his own office in 1991. “Initially, I did some commercial litigation and foreclosures, but I decided to do family law exclusively and that’s what I’ve done since 1994,” he says.

Meanwhile, Merlin married and started a family. Now celebrating 30 years of marriage, Merlin and his wife Michelle have raised three children, Elysa, an international tax attorney in Miami, Rachel, a marriage and family therapist in South Florida, and Craig, an assistant golf pro and manager at Deering Bay Country Club.

A sports fan who enjoys the Miami Heat, Merlin has served on the board of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation since the 1980s and is past president of Jewish Community Services. He enjoys golf, bicycling and the arts. “I grew up as a University of Miami football fan, and I still go to the Hurricanes’ football games, but I am also a Gator fan, since I have two degrees from the University of Florida” he says.

A Pioneer in Collaborative Law

In the early 2000s, Merlin began studying a relatively new alternative dispute resolution process for divorce cases called Collaborative Law. Introduced approximately 25 years ago by Minnesota attorney Stu Webb, the Collaborative Law process has gradually built momentum across the country.

“Today, there is clearly a move away from contested litigation in divorce cases,” Merlin says. “Most clients are aware of the negative effect that fighting in court has on their children, and they also want to have more control over shaping the outcome. People don’t want to spend money unnecessarily, so they are looking for alternative ways to resolve their issues.”

In Collaborative Law, the two parties and their lawyers make a commitment to work together within the framework of a written agreement. The goal is to encourage both parties and their collaborative lawyers to focus on problem solving rather than positioning themselves for a future battle in the courtroom. One or two mental health professionals are used to address the emotional aspects of the divorce and in some cases, the parties hire a neutral accounting professional to help sort out the financial issues.

“Attorneys who have been trained in Collaborative Law also model that type of cooperative behavior for the clients,” Merlin says. “Seeing the attorneys getting along and not attacking each other can lower the clients’ heated emotions.”

As part of the Collaborative Law agreement, a party that decides to terminate the process and file a lawsuit must hire a new lawyer to start over in court. “That’s a strong incentive for all parties to continue to work together even when difficult issues arise,” Merlin says.

To date, Merlin has handled more than 40 Collaborative Law cases, and all were resolved outside the courtroom; however, one client did have to go to court after the case settled when her husband later refused to comply with the settlement agreement. Although he continued to litigate cases for his clients during the 2000s, Merlin was an “early adopter” of the Collaborative Law process, which allowed him to help settle divorces in a more peaceful manner. He began taking training courses, and soon started to teach other attorneys about the process. He has held seminars and written articles about Collaborative Law, lobbied for support from the state Legislature, and is currently helping a small group of collaborative professionals “get the process off the ground” in Boca Raton.  This spring, Merlin decided not to take any new litigation cases.

From 2008 to 2013, Merlin served as president of the Collaborative Family Law Institute in Miami and received the Stu Webb Distinguished Service Award in 2012. A member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, he also recently received the President’s Award from the Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

Throughout the years, Merlin said he has found that many Florida attorneys are uncomfortable with the Collaborative Law concept. “In addition to having to learn something new, they fear the process will break down and they will lose a client,” he says. “The other concern is that attorneys will earn less money — the same objection that was made to mediation years ago. The reality is that this is a faster process than litigation, so fees can be collected sooner with fewer collection issues. Most importantly, clients are happier with the process and more likely to make referrals in the future. That’s a far better outcome for everyone.”

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