Recently we sat down with Erika Englund, the founder of Divorceably, a mediation-based divorce service where she uses her skills as a certified attorney-mediator to help families through cooperative divorce and co-parenting, without subjecting them to the emotional trauma of family court. Erika’s fifteen years’ experience and the innovative design of her services have allowed her to help many families through divorce.
She has also created a highly specialized course at McGeorge School of Law called Alternatives to Litigation in Family Law, which provides a unique perspective for students into the world of a mediated divorce. Erika is currently developing a ground-breaking software program that will allow clients to work through the divorce process cooperatively, online.
Tell us about your company and what you do? Specifically, can you explain the proprietary software you use to help people reach an amicable agreement?
The idea for the software came about because my process as a mediator is highly structured. Everybody goes through the same four steps, and that’s quite different than you would go through with any mediator. I had clients begin to ask if they could just do these steps online, instead of filling out paperwork, and I realized that to create an online program for my own clients would cost just as much as it would to create an online program for everybody, everywhere.
There’s nothing at all in the marketplace that exists right now that approaches divorce from the perspective of mediation. There is a lot of legal software for people who would like to do their own divorce, but this would be the first program that’s designed exclusively for the couple who wishes to sit down together and take each step jointly, from start to finish.
What is the timeline for the software to be utilized?
We have started implementing the portal for our current clients. We should be launching the full program for our clients in November for our beta testing, and then we’re going out in early 2020 for general population beta testing.
It can be used directly by the client, and they never have to meet me or speak to me, but they can add on to the process to have an assigned mediator providing direct support. If they don’t need me, they don’t pay for that, but if they want someone by their side, then they will have that available via Skype or Zoom, statewide.
How do you determine that people are good candidates for mediation or for using the software?
I make fifty percent of that determination and they make fifty percent. I always consult with clients for free because it gives me an opportunity to let them know if my process is right for them. We do an initial informational consultation where I give them questions to ask themselves to determine if this process will work.
Those questions are becoming part of the online program, so the clients can take a self-assessment before they begin. The other fifty percent is me evaluating the clients when they’re in the office, looking at everything from their body language to the questions that they ask, or the energy in the room, to determine whether they’re a good fit.
I will tell people if I’m not the right fit for them, but I will always leave them with resources. Divorce is an emotionally complicated process. Even though I’m selecting the right clients and supporting them, there’s still an opportunity for something to go awry. Then it’s my role to see if I can put them back on track, and I almost always can.
There have been very few instances in my fifteen-year career that people have truly failed out of mediation. It’s more that there’s a moment or a day or a week they believe it can’t be done. If I can sustain that belief that it’s possible, and get them through that conflict, they’ll resolve successfully. For some people, it’s the first productive conversation they’ve had in a long time. Separation can give people perspective into a marriage in a way that can be really healthy.
Do you feel like your process is similar to counseling?
The biggest difference between being a counselor and a mediator I think is that counselors are looking back at what happened and mediators are looking forward to what people want to see happen. For that reason, we’re much less embroiled in the conflict, and so much more attuned to solutions, that the conversation can be productive.
How did you get started in your industry?
I started in family law because I wanted a good lifestyle practice, where I could help people, go to court sometimes, solve problems sometimes, but after a few years in court, I realized that it’s a destructive process. I didn’t want to be a part of that process any longer, and I just closed my business, fired my employees, got rid of my clients, and started fresh.
Instead of being a lawyer who does some mediation, I became exclusively a mediator, and then I could look at the practice from a different approach. I wanted to create something from scratch that would serve the needs of the clients the best, but in ways that overlap and serve me well as a businessperson. Just one example is using fixed fees.
Almost no mediators do this, and I have a process that’s good for the clients and so transparent. They love knowing their fees are not going to escalate, and for me as a businessperson, I have no accounts receivable. That’s one example—I look at things and ask what is going to align our interests, between myself and my clients.
Typically, an attorney and a client have opposite interests. The attorney makes more money by generating more conflict—whether or not they know that. This was a new approach that’s very client-centered but still designed to be a business.
What advice do you have for others interested in becoming a mediator?
First, I would say determine your suitability, because it’s not a job for everyone. For people that have the right skill set, it can be amazing. And second, I encourage it. One of the skills of the next century is collaboration, and so anyone who is interested in staying on top of the soft skills that are needed in the professional world can benefit from learning about mediation.
Our world is changing, and we need to anticipate what a client is going to want or need in the future. From a business perspective, it’s just the recognition that just because we do things one way, that doesn’t mean it’s right. We should be looking at what we could do differently, more creatively, or in a way that’s going to connect more with a client base.
It’s going more mobile, for one, and I would want people not to be afraid of that, particularly those of us that are in industries where we’ve been doing things a certain way for such a long time and there’s a lot of push back against people who are disruptive. Those of us who are creative enough and strong enough to look at things in a new way is going to be the ones bringing these businesses into the 21st century.
Where do you see your business in 5 years?
Totally mobile, totally online, and still growing.
What is something interesting about yourself that you can share?
I am Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Star Wars character test, which makes me feel very well-suited to this career, and I’m the Meyers-Briggs personality type Mediator, and I’m an Aquarius. All these things align to put me in a field to be creative, revolutionary, disruptive, compassionate, and organized, and someone who really tries to bring people to a place of agreement.
When not mediating, what is something else you are passionate about?
I’m a single mom and I very happily co-parent with my children’s dad. I love my job, I love what I do, I love being a parent, getting outdoors—it’s one of my favorite things about living in this area. This week I went kayaking, explored an abandoned gold mine, went boating on the lake.
I love the access that we have to living outdoors and a lifestyle that’s balanced. I feel like there are so many good ways to live here in Northern California that I just try to drink the wine and eat the food and kayak the rivers. We really have a lot here—world-class theater, amazing art—I like the vibrancy of it. Last year I learned to tap dance, ocean kayak and ski.
This year—my mind is so taken up with the software but there’s been a lot of yoga this year because yoga teaches me to meet myself where I’m at in life and business, and I think that’s a good reminder to not be judging or pushing ourselves all the time.
Do you have a daily habit that helps you be more successful?
Exercise almost every day. Some kind of physical activity is good for getting out of stress and resetting me, even if it’s just a walk around the block at night. It’s absolutely necessary for a high-stress career, with a high-stress single parent lifestyle.
Do you have a book that you often recommend or gift to people? Why?
What do you most want people to take away from your experiences?
Challenge yourself, challenge the way that you’re running your business, and look at it from the client-side and say what can I do differently, versus what am I just doing because that’s the way it’s always been done. Always ask why. Why am I doing it this way, how is it serving me, how am I serving my client base.
You might have fifty people tell you no, and you have to push back. Doing things the traditional way might not make sense anymore. People are very rooted in the way things have always been done, so it requires a bit of bravery and it’s a bit subversive to say “I’m going to try it this way, no one’s going to die from trying this innovation, and let’s be a little more agile, a little more creative, and see what could happen positively if we disrupt the system a little.”
I take some pride that there are people in my industry telling me not to do this. Don’t be constrained. People doing what I’m doing don’t set out to cause problems, we see a need that’s unidentified or a new way to do something, or we ask why, and that’s who changes the world. It’s a huge component of innovation- flexibility to try something new and to do it differently. For me, that’s also been fun and personally fulfilling.