‘Settlement Conference’ may be the best program you’ve never heard of.
On the first Friday of every month, parties at Norfolk Probate & Family Court can settle their case for free under the Limited Issue Settlement Conference program.
A judicial case management service that connects parties with active and retired judges for settlement of any kind of Probate & Family Court matter, the program is intended for those who have only a few contested issues pending and want to reach a resolution. The only requirements are that at least one party must be represented by counsel, and the parties must bring a working draft separation agreement to the conference.
If complete resolution is achieved at the conference, the parties can ask a judge to approve and incorporate the signed agreement into a court order that same day.
The Limited Issue Settlement Conference program has been very successful with approximately 69 percent of the conferences ending in a complete resolution by agreement. But despite its high success rate and efficient use of court resources, many divorce attorneys are unaware that the program even exists.
The court’s chief justice, Angela M. Ordoñez, created the program in 2013 and has been enthusiastically advertising its merits ever since.
“I bring it up at every speaking engagement I can,” Ordoñez said of her efforts to spread the word.
Franklin lawyer Julie A. Rougeau said she first learned about the program at a bar event when Ordoñez mentioned a pilot that was about to start at the Norfolk court. A few weeks later, Rougeau was working on a case that stalled in negotiations. She remembered the Limited Issue Settlement Conference program and immediately suggested it to her client.
The case eventually went through the Limited Issue Settlement Conference and was resolved within a few hours.
“Now I frequently bring it up to clients when we’re at a standstill,” Rougeau said. “Every time I use the program, I have a 100 percent success rate with reaching an agreement.”
Alisa L. Hacker, a Boston divorce attorney, said she heard about the settlement conference from several judges.
“I was working on a contentious case, and the judge mentioned the program,” recalled Hacker, who plans to use the service again for the right case.
“It is an invaluable experience. You are able to hear a judge’s perspective on your case and reach a swift resolution,” she said. “And afterward, it’s entered into judgment so there’s no more trial prep, there’s no more discovery, there’s no more anything.”
Needham solo Lawrence K. Glick also heard about the settlement conference after a judge recommended the program to the parties during a hearing.
“I had never heard of it before,” Glick said. “This is the area I practice. I’m in the Probate Court constantly, and I had never heard of it until the judge mentioned it.”
Calling his experience with the program “outstanding,” Glick said the retired judge who oversaw the conference did not wear a robe or sit at the bench, but instead joined the parties at counsel table. The informal setting helped both sides feel more at ease, and a settlement was reached that same day he said.
Despite the positive reviews, however, too few attorneys are using the program as an effective and efficient mode of alternative dispute resolution for their clients — something Ordoñez and the court’s sitting judges hope to change.
“I do feel that the program is under-utilized,” Ordoñez said. “But all it will take is word of mouth to fix that.”
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Article - By Muska Yousuf, Esquire
Muska Nassery is of counsel at Denby Law Office in Natick
where she serves clients in all areas of domestic relations litigation.