The Mother of Collaborative Law In Colorado Celebrates Thirty Years of Practice
“I made a prediction in 2000 that divorce would be out of the courtroom by the year 2020. We’re not there yet but we have made some nice strides.” — Sheila Gutterman
“When a client comes to our firm requesting a bulldog, they generally don’t pick me,” says Sheila Gutterman, co-founder of the firm Gutterman Griffiths (now named Griffiths Law PC) and chief rainmaker for the firm over the past two decades. Her co-founder, Suzanne Griffiths, observes about Gutterman: “Sheila is exceptional. She is an unwavering proponent of collaborative divorce. She knows everyone in the community and is a magnet for referrals. When she gets a referral, that person goes in our doors as a prospect and inevitably leaves as a client. She has the magic of instant trust.”
Gutterman Brings Collaborative Divorce to Colorado
Termed the “Mother of Collaborative Divorce” in Colorado by the legal media and her cohorts in the profession, Gutterman has promoted the non-combative process for the past eighteen years. “It’s not for everyone,” she observes. “If both parties are not by nature cooperative or can’t set aside ‘I hate you’ to work on problems and a plan that will minimize anger and do the best we can for our children, then they will not be good candidates. For most people, not all, divorce is traumatic enough. If they can get through it a little easier, it’s better for everybody.”
Launching Collaborative Divorce
Gutterman became a national trainer in the then-obscure practice of Collaborative Law in 2000, receiving training in Vancouver and California. She sponsored twenty-seven workshops in Colorado featuring prominent national speakers including the gurus for the movement Stu Webb and Pauline Tessler. She wore herself out going from law firm to law firm to garner interest in an umbrella organization, Colorado Collaborative Law Professionals. Later, she formed the Academy of Collaborative Practitioners for professionals with ten or more years of experience. Gutterman wrote over three dozen articles and authored a book “Collaborative Law — A New Method of Dispute Resolution” which of course was written with other experts… collaboratively.
Gutterman points out that Collaborative Lawyers are not at all the “shark” that your friends advise you to hire. She has been told by clients that she was “too nice to be a divorce lawyer.” “As Lawyers, we are trained in law school to be gladiators; to come in to save the day; to win. Collaborative Lawyers work to form cooperative teams; to solve problems; to make mutually acceptable plans. Therefore if the collaborative process fails, (I have only had one in the past 18 years and she received $100,00 less, in court, than in her collaborative agreement) then you must move on from your collaborative lawyer, including that lawyer’s entire firm.”
Gutterman’s Rainmaking Secrets
You can see that Gutterman has the radiant personality and relatability to make her a productive networker, but she credits her rainmaking success to careful screening: “Let’s say you were a client, I would talk to you about whether you are a candidate for mediation, collaboration, or going with the traditional way, hoping to settle out of court. I look for the out-of-court options first. And I might conclude that your case, due to some special factor, is going to have to be handled in the courts. In that case you will need someone who is a great litigator and I refer you to a talented one suited to your case. I might see you as a collaborative candidate with or without a mediator. Or, if I think you won’t work well in a room — collaborative sessions usually involve just four people, the couple and their respective lawyers — then I will send you to a lawyer who is skilled at working out a pre-court settlement. And then there are the people who must win at any cost. They need to have their day in court, whether it’s rational or not. Screening people, listening deeply is the key.”
Staying with Your Higher Self Is Important
“I think the one thing I have going for me is the strong psychological background and being married to a psychiatrist — I can tune in and hear what people are really trying to say. I think that’s the skill. I do this and enjoy it because I care about helping. I know the pain and suffering that goes on through a divorce so that you are not always in the most rational mind. I help people stay with their higher selves because to fight and spend all the money that’s supposed to go to the children’s college tuition… well, the legal fight does not make sense for anyone.”
The Birth of a Great Law Firm
Gutterman recalls the unlikely partnership forged between her and Griffiths. “Suzanne came from South Africa, so she had to take the bar review, which I taught for nineteen years. She was in my class. Afterwards, she wrote me a letter from South Africa that said ‘I will come work for you for free.’ I wrote back I was not interested at this time, but she came to America with eleven suitcases and three kids. Suzanne persisted in wanting to work for me. We soon recognized each other’s strengths and we went out on our own together to form Gutterman Griffiths.
I was attracted to Suzanne because she was blunt, brilliant, and practical. I think she saw my emotional intelligence. We were great together. I think Suzanne and I rarely, maybe never, have disagreed with the outcome of a case. We complement each other. I will go to her for strategic thinking on a case. She will come to me with ‘what is going on in this client’s head?’”
By the Way, I Am Not Retired
“At one point last year, Suzanne told me she wanted to add civil litigation and construction defect law to our practice. With this change we wanted a new identity that was not attached solely to family law. For me, I only know family law and it didn’t make sense for my name to stay on the firm. But when Gutterman Griffiths became just Griffiths, people thought I had retired. I have curtailed some of my administrative duties, but I want to dispel the myth that I am retired as a lawyer.”
The Number One Crisis in the United States
Gutterman has never been divorced. She has been married for fifty-three years. However, a close direct family member was recently divorced, causing her to feel the extreme personal pain that accompanies the divorce process. “I think I am an empathetic person, but to get first hand into the experience — it’s devastating.”
Gutterman continues: “The divorce rate is 52% of first marriages and 62% of second marriages. I think that divorce is the number one crisis in the United States right now. It’s easy to get a divorce. All you have to say is that the marriage is irretrievably broken, rather than working on themselves or seeing personal conflict as just a rough patch. Too frequently, divorce becomes the answer.”
A Tribute to Her Work
She may not be the courtroom bulldog, but as the undisputed “Mother of Collaborative Divorce in Colorado,” Sheila Gutterman celebrates thirty successful years of bringing clients together to formulate plans instead of going to war. She has saved untold wear and tear on client emotions and the well-being of their children. “It’s not for everyone,” Gutterman emphasizes, but as a tribute to her work, all Colorado judges require that couples considering divorce become familiar with out-of-court procedures before taking the traditional courtroom alternative. It may take a couple more decades, but hopefully, one day, Gutterman’s prediction of taking divorce out of the courtroom completely, will become a reality.
Sheila Gutterman is the co-founder and senior counsel of Griffiths Law PC. In 2017 she received the Award of Merit from the Denver Bar Association which is the highest recognition given by the Denver Bar. She has also been recognized by Colorado Super Lawyers from 2009-2018 and has been recognized in the list of Top 50 Women Lawyers in Colorado.