The Four-Way Meeting *
By Kathleen B. Vetrano, Esquire
King of Prussia, PA, and the Philadelphia Main Line
A potentially effective settlement tool in a divorce case is the “four-way meeting.” This is an informal meeting among the divorcing spouses and their lawyers to discuss and try to resolve the outstanding issues in a case.
All four persons need not be present at all times. For example, if a spouse is not ready, emotionally, to confront the other spouse, the meeting can take place with one spouse not participating at all for the time being or such spouse can be in a different room, but within easy access for consultation.
Among the reasons for having a four-way meeting are the following: Most divorces are emotionally laden, and although in most jurisdictions fault is not an issue in the equitable distribution of marital assets, the parties’ perception of fault is what drives the case and pervades the divorce proceedings. A four-way meeting provides parties the opportunity to vent emotions generated by such perception. More important, though, is that beyond the immediate benefit to each party of telling his side of the “story,” this venting can highlight a case’s bones of contention and thus provide a clearer path to settlement.
The meeting’s informality mitigates the adversarial nature of the litigation and replaces it, to a significant extent, with a problem-solving atmosphere. Among the benefits is expedited discovery because the gaming aspect normally attendant a deposition is largely absent.
The quick exchange characteristic of a personal meeting often allows an opponent to disclose important information that a party, in a communication with his lawyer alone, would either not provide or not express in the same way. Thus, the meeting gives a lawyer the perspective on a case that either she would not otherwise have or that she would gain only after repeated, independent communications with her client and opposing counsel.
The four-way meeting is an opportunity to evaluate the strength of a case; it allows a lawyer to: see the parties’ positions, gauge the parties’ effectiveness as witnesses, and assess the skill and style of the opposing lawyer. Many a litigator has learned the danger of focusing too much on his own side of a case and from attaching undue weight to his client’s version of events. In short, the four-way meeting can be a sort of preview of what could happen in court.
The four-way meeting and mediation have the same purpose: resolution. However, it is not infrequent for well-intentioned parties to a mediation to have unintentionally waived certain rights or even failed to address certain issues altogether. In such instances, the purpose of the exercise is unfulfilled. A four-way meeting, on the other hand, is, like mediation, more relaxed and informal, but the meeting has the advantage of a lawyer’s representation and participation in a situation that is always legal by nature.
Naturally, the success of the meeting depends on planning. Advance agreement on basic rules will allow the meeting to focus on substantive matters. These rules should include the lawyers’ agreeing to maintain a degree of civility and control so that the meeting does not deteriorate and become ineffective. Each party should be able to talk with his lawyer in private. Also, it is advisable to agree on whether the duration of the meeting will be a certain period or whether it will run until the parties reach an agreement–whether on one or more issues. In the latter situation, the parties and the lawyers need to address, in advance, conflicting appointments and arrangements for meals.
The meeting should take place where the clients are comfortable. If, for example, either party regards the opposing lawyer’s office too much as “enemy territory,” a more neutral site may be called for. Further, the chosen facilities should accommodate the meeting’s needs, such as the private sessions that may be necessary between a lawyer and her client.
The lawyer and his client must prepare for the meeting. The more the client knows what to expect, the greater the chances the meeting will be successful. On the other hand, if the unexpected should arise, the lawyer and client can meet in private or, if necessary, matters can be tabled for later consideration.
During the meeting, as agreement on an issue is reached, the lawyers should note the agreement in writing. On the other hand, if it appears agreement will not come about, it may be better to move on to something else, although still recording what has not been resolved. At the end of the meeting, the lawyers should recapitulate the issues, resolved and unresolved, and exchange a memorandum summarizing such results. This practice will aid in preventing misunderstandings and disagreements on the matters addressed.
A lawyer has to judge the ability and advisability of formalizing agreements on the spot. Theoretically, at least, the better and more thorough the preparation for the meeting, the more likely will be the opportunity to formalize. If, for example, before the meeting, counsel can agree on most provisions of a property settlement agreement, it should be easier to leave the four-way meeting with an agreement signed by the parties. In addition, a laptop computer or a ready personal computer can facilitate formalization.
The stage of the litigation at which the four-way meeting should occur depends on personal preference and on the aim of the meeting. Issues of custody and support are often addressed earlier. And even though an early meeting may not generate the last word on equitable distribution, it can, as discussed above, help identify the major issues. Also, as alluded above, at the end of a case, when a basic agreement has been reached, the four-way meeting can resolve the remaining issues more efficiently than a series of communications between counsel.
Naturally, a four-way meeting does not come with a guarantee of success or productiveness and, like any legal situation, a lot depends on the particular facts and circumstances. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” But even if a four-way meeting accomplishes no more than demonstrating how difficult a situation is or how far apart the parties are, that, in and of itself, can be a significant benefit.
*This article appeared:
The Four-Way Meeting. Joy of Settlement:The Family Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Negotiations and Settlement Strategies.Gregg Herman, Editor.Chapter 19, ABA FLS Publication 1997.
Using Four Way Meetings in Divorce Cases.The Practical Lawyer.Vol. 42 No. 6 (September 1996)