Alumni Profilesspring2007

Not Your Mother’s Divorce Lawyer

  Kathryn Lazar ’71 image

Kathryn Lazar ’71


When Kathryn Lazar ‘71 decided to set up her own law practice in 1980, she was immediately inundated with matrimonial cases. “At that time,” she explains, “men still didn’t hire women lawyers, so lots and lots of women showed up in my office needing help.”

But Lazar, who graduated cum laude from Cornell Law School in 1976, quickly decided that the court system was uniquely ill-suited to modern divorce, and that its solutions were inadequate to the needs of women and men negotiating the dissolution-of-marriage process. So she started looking for alternatives.

In 1981, she set up a mediation program in her practice in New York’s Hudson Valley. “I was very excited about it,” she remembers with a rueful laugh. “I thought mediation would sweep the nation. I was 30 at the time, and I didn’t realize how terrified people are when they are divorcing.” Mediation, she explains, often doesn’t address people’s deepest fears—that they will be taken advantage of in the name of a smooth settlement. In fact, she points out, clients in litigation often end up handing over their financial future and the fate of their children to lawyers and judges; but they feel as if someone, at least, is on their side, fighting for them tooth and nail. In mediation, by contrast, without a lawyer to call their own, clients can feel “alone, exposed, and unsupported.”

Two decades later, when Lazar heard about an emerging trend known as collaborative divorce, she immediately signed up for training. In collaborative divorce, both parties commit to a voluntary and free exchange of information—“it doesn’t work if you lie,” she says bluntly. Husband and wife sign a pledge not to litigate; each has a lawyer who facilitates negotiations while protecting their client’s rights. A typical collaborative divorce team will include a divorce coach for each spouse or partner, a financial consultant, and, if necessary, a child specialist.

“I’ve spent 30 years as a divorce lawyer and I know it is possible to win the court case and still ruin someone’s life.”

“The wonderful thing about collaborative divorce,” Lazar explains, “is that it provides more support than mediation, and more control than litigation.” In her experience, outcomes in collaborative divorce typically cost half as much as litigated cases and produce better results. “I’ve spent 30 years as a divorce lawyer and I know it is possible to win the court case and still ruin someone’s life. Most people would like to think of themselves as reasonable and fair-minded individuals who treat people whom they have loved with respect. Collaborative divorce provides a forum for that.”

Lazar is a pioneer in the field: she founded the collaborative divorce movement in New York State, and is involved in spreading it nationwide. She runs training programs for new practitioners, and has set up a multi-disciplinary practice, the Hudson Valley Collaborative Divorce Association, comprising lawyers, mental health professionals, and financial consultants, which has become a model for others. She also runs a private practice with her husband, Robert Schwartz; the couple has two grown daughters.

The roles of maverick and leader seem to come easy for Lazar. At Reed, she was the first chairperson of Paideia, she sat on the student senate, and she was assistant editor of the Quest. She cut her collaborative teeth at Reed, serving as an intermediary between campus groups in conflict-ridden situations.

“I was there in the hot years,” Lazar remembers. When she started at Reed in the late ‘60s, the college still had a curfew and strict rules about dorm visitation. Four years later, because of student action, all the rules had changed. Everything was up for grabs.

Lazar remembers one night when there was an anti-Vietnam-War demonstration and a large group of students decided to occupy Eliot Hall. Lazar and a friend called two of their professors. When the students entered the building, the professors were waiting for them. The two groups sat up all night and talked.

“I have a lot of respect for the manner in which the Reed faculty and administration organized teaching opportunities around the hot issues of the day,” she says. As a result, she thinks, the violent confrontations that took place on other campuses were largely absent at Reed. And the idea that institutions can be so responsive is one that has remained with her. “We learned that people in my age group were able to effect change,” she says. “It was a very powerful learning experience.”

—Rebecca Koffman