by Boonsri Dickonson, Wefunder Correspondent, February 12 2013
Wevorce founder Michelle Crosby knows the pain of divorce all too well. At the age of nine, her parents were going through a bitter court battle. When she took the witness stand, the judge asked her: “Which parent will you choose?”
"When you are nine, you can't answer those questions," Michelle says.
She felt confused and overwhelmed. They were asking her to pick which one was her favorite parent, and she didn’t know how to answer.
At the time, divorce settlements meant mom got the kids and dad had to live with seeing them every other weekend. That wasn’t enough for Michelle’s father, so he challenged it. Unfortunately, because of the way the divorce process generally works, this meant that Michelle was dragged to court every other year.
The post traumatic stress from experiencing such a bitter divorce, stayed with her and wound up influencing her career choice. Michelle attended Gonzaga University of Law in order to pursue family law so she could help make sure other children didn’t have to go through a similar traumatic experience.
The divorce process is broken
Throughout her studies and practice, she started to understand why so many divorces wind up like her parent's one did. When partners decide to divorce, two different lawyers are hired who work towards ensuring that the partner they represent walks away with as many of the family’s possessions as possible, including the kids.
“Law schools train lawyers to be advocates. Lawyers sit with their clients and are taught to think about the process from that one client’s perspective,” Michelle said. “They fail to recognize there’s a whole family involved or how divorce sets the stage for co-parenting. That’s a rough way to begin a change especially when this is your family.”
Michelle couldn’t bring herself to practice family law in that way, so she joined a corporate securities firm instead. After years at that firm and on the eve of a coveted partner promotion, Michelle realized that she had drifted even further away from the reason she went to law school in the first place.
So she quit and decided to start her own family law practice that would change the divorce process in the way that she had always understood was needed.
"I wanted to go work with families," Michelle said, “and help them through tough times to make decisions for their families. The transition during a divorce maybe from the husband and wife role, but there's no reason couples can't maintain the mom and dad role for life,” she added.
Divorce impacts millions of families
To say that many families could benefit from an improved divorce process would be an understatement. According to the CDC, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. The chance of staying together in a second or third marriage is even less likely, and children are directly impacted by the change. The Effects of Divorce On America found that fifty percent of children born to married parents will experience divorce before they are 18-years-old. And various studies have shown that children who experience the divorce of their parents require psychological help.
Second to the death of a spouse or child, divorce is the most traumatizing life event that one can experience, so grieving through the process is expected. Michelle experienced this grief first-hand. After being married for 13 years, she went through an amicable divorce with her husband using her own methodology. Seemingly trapped in the divorce system herself, her only escape has been through creating a new way to get divorced -- one that is augmented by software and prioritizes empathy for the children involved.
"I've walked the shoes of every role -- the child of a divorce, a wife who was divorced, and a lawyer helping other people get divorced," Michelle said.
How Wevorce works
There are stumbling blocks that all families encounter, so Wevorce can recognize those patterns and normalize them. The Wevorce process starts from a different place than a traditional divorce. Instead of two lawyers competing against one another, Wevorce puts one lawyer at the center whose job it is to help the family find the best way to co parent moving forward. There are six steps to the process : Amicable divorce planning, sustainable co-parenting planning, partnering agreement, financial mapping, financial agreements, and divorce settlement.
Each step involves a meeting with the attorney and an accompanying software component.
"The idea of combining technology in this conversation is really new. Using technology to make the professional’s job easier is the key. It allows them to save costs and do away with paper files," Michelle said.
Family attorneys wind up doing a lot of paperwork, a reality that is cumbersome for them, and expensive for their clients. Wevorce has developed software that helps attorneys complete that paperwork in 60 percent of the time that it normally takes. Clients can answer questions using a tablet while meeting with the attorney and complete other components of the process on their computers at home.
In addition to walking the couple through the legal process, the software gives couples helpful information about the complexity of what they are going through. For instance, there’s a video that explains how the brain’s amygdala region, where emotions are stored, is affected during a divorce. When someone is going through a divorce it is impossible to make a logical decision. The video shows parents that when they experience an emotional trigger, they can have a rush of adrenaline that lasts for hours. To relieve this, the video suggests that they go for a walk in order to calm down and get back to making logical decisions.
Companies such as LegalZoom have provided online paperwork that is standard in divorce settlements. However, people have a hard time navigating hundreds of pages of legal documents, “Even if you choose do-it-yourself methods, they are dealing with 170 pages of double sided documents that use jargin like “pro rata” and “jurisdiction” that the average family has a hard time understanding.” Michelle said. "We populate those legal documents and we are doing it in a much more human fashion."
Wevorce is already having success. While living in Idaho, Michelle ran a beta test. She put 104 families through the system and only one went to court.
“If this could work in Idaho, this could work anywhere,” Michelle said. The service will soon be available in San Francisco, California, Seattle, Washington, Boise, Idaho, and Asheville, North Carolina.
In just two years, the system has saved clients $2.5 million in legal fees. In January, Michelle moved from Boise, Idaho to Mountain View, California to join a prestigious incubator program called Y Combinator to further develop the software powering Wevorce with her co-founder Jeff Reynolds.
Jeff Reynolds joins the team
Michelle was speaking at an Ignite conference, where Jeff happened to be one of the organizers. Jeff joined as co-founder and COO after a mutual friend suggested they meet for coffee. Jeff’s parents had also gone through a divorce when he was a child, so felt a personal drive to make the divorce process better.
“If my parents had had this, I wouldn’t have spent 20 years worrying about them bumping into each other. Or stressed out about thinking about the transition between my mom and dad’s house,” Jeff said. “My parents didn’t know how that would impact their kids and how it would impact future relationships. They were focused on getting out of each other’s sight. But it turns out, that’s not really a healthy approach to build a future on.”
Jeff brings a history of entrepreneurial experience to the team. He has founded or grown with companies, and is building on that experience to bring Wevorce to a number of new locations.
Why attorneys like Wevorce
Michelle and Jeff hope that a group of lawyers that are already working to keep families out of court will be their early adopters. The collaborative law movement began in the 80s, and has since spread across the country. Lawyers in this movement practice with the thought that families should work on separating without ending up in court or losing sleep from the threat of contested litigation. The challenge has been finding a revenue model to support their work, and Wevorce seems to be a fit. The faster lawyers can help families through the divorce process, the more clients they can manage. There is a list of 15 attorneys in 6 different cities waiting to join Wevorce.
Like most startups, Wevorce is testing different pricing models, but currently averages around $6,500 a client. The average family spends $27,000 on divorce, so Wevorce costs less than a third of what they would otherwise expect to pay. Families call Wevorce to book an appointment. The couple schedules a meeting with an attorney mediator for a consultation where the couple gets the same information together rather than each partner coming to the table with different ideas from their respective attorneys. Delivering the information this way, Michelle said, builds trust.
The trust built through their process helps Wevorce get clients to a resolution relatively quickly, but they often want to expedite the process.
“I always try to say, how long did you spend planning your Wedding? When you are uncoupling, it takes time for everyone to adjust, including the children," Michelle said.
The fastest couples go through the Wevorce process in 6 weeks, but on average, it takes 90 days. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates the average length of divorce proceedings to take 1 year.