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masson_120You're getting a divorce and you need to split up an orange.  If you went to court the judge would typically cut the orange in half.  Instead you and your spouse have agreed to work with a collaborative lawyer.  The lawyer asks what you each want the orange for.  You say you want to make juice.  Your spouse wants to use the rind for baking.  Suddenly a new solution presents itself: you can have 100% of the part of the orange you want to use, and your spouse gets the same.  You each end up with 100% of what you want instead of 50%.

"We can squeeze all the juice out and give you a full orange's worth of juice," says attorney Robin Abrahamson Masson.  "And we can grate all of the rind off and give Sally a full orange's worth of orange rind.  Each of you has more of what's important to you than you would have had if you had gone to court, and you're both much happier with the outcome.  What's wrong with satisfying her at the same time as satisfying you?"

That approach is used in mediation and collaborative law, which Masson says are her passions.  A former litigator, she says she spent a lot of negative energy coming up with lose-lose resolutions, but now she concentrates on creating win-win scenarios.

"I spent the first 25 years of my life being a knock'em sock'em divorce litigator," she says now.  "What I saw was that there were no winners in litigation.  It was destructive to families and individuals.  It was horrendously expensive.  It was making the parties focus their energies on 'what is the worst thing about the other person, and how can I make that person look really bad.  And it required me to do that, and to do things -- to be good at what I was doing -- that weren't very pretty.  With collaboration and mediation we end up making the pie bigger so each person gets a larger slice of it.  We get creative in solving these problems.  Options are available to people if they are willing to work together in good faith, that aren't available in the courts."

Masson says that this approach forces people to listen to each other and collaborate on coming up with the best solutions to their legal problem, whatever that may be.  In mediation she works for both clients.  She doesn't advise one or the other, but helps them find mutually beneficial solutions.  In collaboration each client has an attorney that has been trained in collaborative law.  The attorneys suggest alternatives that clients may not have thought of, such as the orange solution. 

Experts may be called in, but they work for both parties so are called upon to come up with a fair range of the value of property or a business, rather than the extreme that suits one client.  An expert may be an appraiser, or a mental health professional, or whatever is needed for a particular case.

"Listening is a big part of it," she says.  "We do a lot of reframing to restate what people are saying in a way that the other person can hear.  We do a lot of reflecting so that people not only hear what the other person said but feel heard.  And we do it by proxy.  It's very powerful to have the wife's lawyer reflect what the husband said.  Even if the wife isn't clearly getting it, her lawyer is and will maybe make the translation."

If, for any reason, the process doesn't work out, those attorneys are not eligible to represent the clients in court, which means that with client privilege and confidentiality agreements clients are freer to be open with one another in determining what they really want.  When one side tries to help the other, the other is more inclined to reciprocate.

Another benefit is that there are more options for families than they would have in court, where the options are narrowly defined.  That means that solutions can be tailored to the individuals involved, which she says is especially beneficial when children are involved.

"One judge who is no longer sitting used to impose '42 Regular', we called it," she says.  "You know, standard custody to one person, visitation Wednesday nights and every other weekend to the other person regardless of whether that was appropriate for this family.  So we had people come up with very creative parenting plans with the assistance of these mental health professionals."

masson_400Robin Abrahamson Masson

A Long Island native, Masson went to college in Cleveland, then to G.W. University Law School in Washington, D.C.  She is married to a Cornell professor, and has lived in Ithaca since 1978.  She started here teaching at Cornell Legal Aid Clinic, then formed her own firm.  She was a partner in Wiggins & Masson for 18 years before striking out on her own again in 2006.

The firm handles adoption, collaborative family law, domestic partnerships, elder law, estate planning, mediation, probate and estate administration, real estate and small business law,  located in the beautiful Italianate style building next to Dewitt Park.  The firm consists of Masson and Paralegal/Office Manager Amber Watkins.  Masson says Watkins is a vital part of her team.

"She thinks very much the way I do, except that any flaws in my thinking she doesn't have," Masson says.  "She keeps me on track and organized.  The clients adore her and she loves them.  Together as a team we are able to serve our clients well."

Starting with collaboration doesn't necessarily mean clients will end up there.  But it provides a gentler, more positive starting approach that may step through mediation to litigation in some cases.  Masson says that Ithaca collaborative attorneys tracked their cases over a five year period and found that roughly 90% of cases that started as collaborations were resolved, with the other 10% ending up either in mediation or in court, with some even leading to couples staying together.  There are about a dozen attorneys in Tompkins County who practice collaborative law.

Masson says she loves having her own firm rather than working in a large law firm.  It allows her to choose the work she does and the clients she helps.  She also loves the relationships she forms not just with clients, but with generations of their families as they come back to her with different legal issues that crop up over time.

"The most rewarding thing that I do is take the client through the pros and cons of conflict -- conflict pervades every area of your life -- and to help them through that," she says.  "To help them see clearly.  To make them know that they're going to be OK on the other end, and get them to the other end.  And say, 'See, we did it'."

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