Clayton attorney Gary Soule wants to ensure families going through a divorce get the information and tools they need to make informed choices in a safe environment. That's why he and about 15 to 20 lawyers formed the St. Louis-based Collaborative Family Law Association in October 2002.
Professionals in the fields of mental health and finance joined the organization in 2005.
"There was a real value to working with and consulting colleagues in these other disciplines," said Soule, a partner with the firm Bauer Soule Garnholz Albin.
Soule grew up in University City, and one of his heroes was a cousin who worked as a lawyer. From age 10, Soule said, he knew he wanted to be an attorney, too.
After graduating from law school, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He returned to St. Louis in 1976, where he worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County from 1976-79. After that, he entered private practice in Clayton.
Soule started out working in various areas, including litigation and transactions. As time went on, he became more focused on divorce and other components of family law.
He and many St. Louis-area colleagues began to notice limitations in the traditional legal process for divorce. Parties often withheld relevant information, looked out primarily for personal interests and waited until the last minute to agree on a settlement.
That resulted in less satisfaction in the outcome for both parties, settlements that didn't serve their interests and an increased likelihood that they would return to court in the future to iron out problems with their agreement.
"You're working harder with more stress and contentiousness, and being able to provide your clients with outcomes and results that are just less than what you had hoped for and what you also come to believe is really possible," Soule said. "You find over time that there must be … another way, a different way, to assist people getting divorced.
Collaboration empowers families, brings experts to table
Collaborative practice appeared to be a natural answer to ease the process. It first developed in 1990 with Minneapolis attorney Stu Webb and has since spread around the world. Forty-one U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have at least one collaborative practice group, as do 16 other countries, Soule said. In Missouri, there are two: the St. Louis group that Soule helped found and another in Kansas City.
The Collaborative Family Law Association has more than 30 members, about half of whom are attorneys. The others work in finance or mental health.
People using a collaborative approach to divorce agree to three main principles. First, both parties promise they won't go to court until they have mutually agreed to a settlement. Appearing before a judge simply formalizes the agreement. Second, they agree to a full and voluntary exchange of all relevant information. And third, they agree to do what is in the best interest of both parties, including any children.
That requires clients to be active participants, Soule said. Lawyers and mental health professionals talk with their respective clients before attending group meetings, and they meet afterward to debrief.
Group meetings are intended to serve as a safe environment in which information can be exchanged, rather than as a setting for fear or intimidation. The professionals in attendance help support both parties during the discussion. Financial experts, for example, might provide helpful information about budgeting, division of assets, child and spousal support, Soule said.
It's also important that families leave the process with their existing relationships intact, if possible.
Soule and attorneys Ann Bauer, Cynthia Garnholz and Cynthia Albin founded Bauer Soule Garnholz Albin in October 2009. It is a firm whose primary focus is family law.
Family and hobbies
Soule and his wife, Ellen, have been married 12 years. Ellen is a well known public relations professional and community volunteer. They have a cat, Gypsy, who is 14 years old.
They travel to Texas frequently to visit Ellen's family and their goddaughter, Jessie, who lives in San Antonio.
For three years, Gary Soule has played a regular Sunday golf game with three friends at Ruth Park. Since 1992, he's also played in a regular tennis doubles game at the Creve Coeur Racquet Club.
Soule has served on the Clayton Board of Adjustment since 2000 and as its chairperson since 2006. He has volunteered for several years with the Back-to-School! Store, a yearly project sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women that equips approximately 1,000 underprivileged children with school supplies, backpacks, coats, sneakers and more.
He said he likes helping people find the best possible solution to their legal problems.