By Penny Coombes

Sussex Family Solutions set up over a decade ago.  It grew out of an idea that there must be a better way of helping separating couples through their relationship breakdown in a more non-adversarial way, and that if we pooled our experience and professional expertise, we could achieve better outcomes for people.  We coalesced around this central idea and Sussex Family Solutions was born.

 We come from a range of different professional backgrounds and disciplines, and each of us also belongs to other teams or has our own professional practice too.  This is important because it means, for example, if you are represented by a lawyer working towards achieving a collaborative divorce or separation, you will know that the lawyer works for a separate firm from that of your partner’s, and that there is therefore no conflict of interest. 

 However, it also enables us to work together and consider what would assist our clients most, knowing we share the same core values.   Would they really benefit from something other than legal advice first? Would mediation be more helpful? If so, we have mediators. Would it be helpful to have a family consultant present, or see a family consultant first? We can offer that. Are the financial issues key?  We have excellent financial advisors. Similarly, if the needs are in respect of parenting, child arrangements, counselling, or therapeutic support etc.  In short, we can quickly pull together a package that adapts to deliver what is most needed, including considering the emotional consequences of separation, and looking at the wider picture.  We were one of the earliest teams to develop this model.

 Anyone who has worked in a multi-disciplinary forum knows that while the benefits are significant and outweigh any challenges, there is also a steep learning curve:  Different professional jargon, different emphasis, different professional criteria, different ideas.  Yet it is also this cross pollination that leads to the greatest growth.  History reveals this time and again.

 It is no accident that Elizabethan England produced some of our greatest writers (William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Milton, Walter Raleigh, Kit Marlowe etc.). Every once in awhile things align so that there is an ideal cultural mix that allows people to create in new ways.   Mass migration to cities meant London was densely populated. This population needed entertaining, and playhouses were an emerging and rapidly expanding industry, the latter-day equivalent of the boom.  Relaxation of censorship laws enabled writers to take greater risks. A patent system was introduced for products, but extended to consider that ideas had value too, so that a ‘letter of patent’ was granted to inventors.  Creativity had become something to be valued. Social change meant that for the first-time young men from middle-class backgrounds, such as merchants and farmer’s sons were receiving an education. Literacy was on the rise.

  To take Shakespeare as example, although from a modest background (his father was a glover, who signed his name with a mark) Shakespeare received education at the Stratford free grammar school. Only a few decades earlier this would have been reserved for the privileged few.  Like his literary peers from similar backgrounds, he knew what appealed to the masses because he was one of them and wrote in a manner accessible to a wide audience. Schooled in Latin, he also used the vernacular, without shying away from bawdiness or base language which gave him a broader appeal.  A rise in printed literature meant that he had access to reading that would have never crossed his path at an earlier point in history. He drew from Ovid and the classics, history, populist pamphlets from the streets and romance stories that were the pulp fiction equivalent of his time.  Almost all Shakespeare’s plots were adapted from other sources, but he made them his own.   He existed at a point in history where his exposure to the arts was greater than ever before and this ignited creativity. He lived at a time where that creativity was valued and encouraged, but before laws monitoring plagiarism and intellectual property existed.  If he had been born a hundred years earlier or later, it is doubtful he would have become the great playwright he was.  Perhaps it was this cultural intersection his peer, John Donne, was thinking of when he wrote “No man is an island”. 

Urban researchers West and Bettencourt (2010) looked at cities around the world considering a multitude of variables and found that urban patterns remain the same, wherever in the world the city is, and statistics revealed that when people come together per capita to an exponent of 1.15, they become more productive and generate more innovations. Put another way, if you took the same person and moved them from a city of 50,000 people to a city of 6 million, they would be statistically three times more productive on several measurable variables (patents, income etc.). By measuring footfall in 60ft areas, they discovered that the most creative cities were the ones with the most social collisions.  The more people mix, the more creative and successful they are. 

The benefit of these multiple random connections is also evident in the development of Silicon Valley in California, which exploded into being in the 1970’s.  Prior to that the area most people would have bet on to dominate the technological boom would have been that surrounding route 128 in Boston, which contained six of the ten largest technology firms in the world.  However, these companies were so large they were self-sufficient, manufacturing everything themselves, software, microchips, computers etc. The firms took secrecy very seriously and enforced non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, where former employees could not work for competitors. Information sharing flowed vertically within the companies.  Meanwhile in California some small fledgling companies started. Due to their size they had to collaborate on projects, share engineers, and therefore formed cross-cutting relationships. People were friends with each other while working for different companies; they drank in the same bars and schmoozed each other. Small firms often also meant short contracts, and people transferred frequently, going on to work for competitors. The region was defined by professional networks rather than firms, and information sharing flowed horizontally rather than in the more traditional hierarchal vertical structure. Over time this innovative structure gave rise to companies such as intel, Apple, Cisco, Netscape, Google, Netflix etc which all developed in this area. 

It is an often-stated truism that travel broadens the mind. Experiencing different cultures and different ways of doing things, gives fresh perspective on a situation, and sometimes it is being the outsider that enables this. One famed anecdote that gives truth to this is the story of Ruth Hindler and her daughter Barbara.  It was the 1950’s and dolls tended to be either baby dolls or cut out dolls of child like figures.  Ruth noticed that Barbara often gave these cut-outs surprisingly adult roles, e.g., making them a waitress or a mother etc. even though they were child figures.  Ruth felt that Barbara was using the cut-outs to project her imagined future as an adult woman.  In 1956 Ruth went on her first holiday to Europe, and while in Switzerland noticed a doll in the window of a cigarette shop. The doll had platinum blonde hair, long legs, a small waist, and big bosom.  The doll was called Bild Lilli and Ruth thought it would make the perfect present for Barbara, to replace her cut-outs.   What Ruth was unaware of, as she didn’t speak the language or know the cultural references, was that Bild Lilli was a joke doll, regarded as a sex-symbol, and purchased most frequently by middle aged men, tongue-in-cheek, for their wives or girlfriends.  Barbara did love her new toy, and after watching other little girls play with it similarly, her father (a Mattel Toy executive) realised the potential.  In 1959 Mattel released the Barbie doll.   If Ruth had not been an outsider, she would never have bought such a salacious toy for her daughter.  It was her lack of understanding of the cultural reference that enabled her to think outside the box. 

So, what does all this have to do with Sussex Family Solutions?  We cannot, in all conscience, claim the erudition of an Elizabethan poet, the fraternising opportunities of a mega city, the international reach of the big tech giants or the imagination that led to one of the world’s best-selling toys. Yet, in our smaller way, there are ripples of the same forces at play. The past decade has been one of immense change in family and matrimonial law, not all of it positive (e.g., the erosion of public funding for private law cases) but, as was evidenced in Elizabethan England, social change also brings opportunity for development and innovation.  One of the most important developments in Family Law has been the rise in Alternative Dispute Resolution as a means of separating partners resolving matters between them rather than in Court. This is at the core of our ethos and values at Sussex family Solutions and we are proud to have championed it from the get-go.   We did so by forming as an inter-disciplinary professional network, along flexible non-hierarchical lines; no one professional group holds more authourity than another and we recognise we all have different and valuable expertise and can learn from each other.  We network together, but also have other teams we belong too.  In many ways our horizontal structure has echoes of the early days in Silicon Valley. We are all experienced professionals in our own field, but ‘travellers’ in those of our colleagues’.  As such, like Ruth Hindler, we see things differently.  We ask the questions.   Why is it done like that? Is that most helpful? What about trying this?    The fresh eye has as much to offer as the old hand!

We have learned a thing or two from each other since those early days and consider ourselves better practitioners for it. In a microcosm of the work on social collisions in cities, our continuous but planned ‘bumping into’ has meant we have learned from each other.  When choosing someone to work with you may well think, ‘well I could see a lawyer/ mediator/ financial advisor/ therapist from another practice, and it would be the same’.  What they may not have, but what you will get at SFS is, for example,  a  therapist or family consultant who has absorbed a lot of legal knowledge and can incorporate that knowledge into their support, a lawyer who really understands the importance of dealing with the emotional issues and not just  the legal aspect , financial advisors that understand the legal and emotional considerations too, a therapist who became so intrigued they trained as a financial consultant, and mediators who incorporate all these aspects into their practice but bring in other specialists too where that might assist. It is these soft skills that make the difference to the service you receive. 

Penny Coombes

Family Consultant/ Parenting Practitioner.