The Collaborative Mind in the Age of Specialization

I am a big fan of Wendell Berry. A farmer, conservationist and an author of excellent works of fiction, he is above all a social critic. One particular target of Berry’s criticisms is our current age of specialization, which has accelerated rapidly since World War II. By "specialization" I mean a world where every doctor specializes in a body part or disease, every lawyer focuses on one small portion of the law, etc. ... Berry sees a problem with this approach :

“What you have to regret is the isolation of the specialists so that they’re at liberty to judge their work by professional standards to the exclusion of any other kind. The ascendancy of professional standards in …professions is a very bad thing, I think, because it means that the specialists are all isolated in their specialty and are not thinking about the pattern that they have to fit their work into. … if you work too long in too great isolation, you lose the sense of limits; you lose the sense of the effect of your work on other people.”

Zealous Advocates and Chrome-Plated Mufflers

A lawyer friend told me a story that illustrates how our age of specialization affects attorneys. A lawyer represented the family of a man who died when cutting a muffler off of a car, which caused sparks and ignited the gas tank. He suffered gruesome injuries that led to his death. After the case was concluded, this lawyer — who got a good result for the family and made a good deal of money in the process — thought fit to have the muffler chrome plated and hung from his office wall. I think most people would be revolted at seeing the muffler involved in the death of a man on a wall. Chrome plating it would be unthinkable. But this lawyer did not see it this way. He saw it as a symbol of success, and that is all his profession requires of him.

Most people today know that lawyers have an ethical obligation to be “zealous advocates” for their client’s position. Lawyers can act upon a policy of scorched earth tactics so long as the goal is to win for their clients. The legal community justifies this singular focus by assuming that it will magically, of its own accord, create “justice” for all. This is a massive change in how attorneys previously viewed their jobs. Lawyers have always been bound to zealously represent their clients, but previously this obligation was limited by their duties to the community and their republican duties as “officers of the court.” There was a personal connection — not blind belief in a system — between the actions of a lawyer and his or her obligation to achieve moral and legal justice. Lawyers measured their actions by consulting their own consciences in order to maintain their moral accountability to their community. This approach has largely been abandoned today, and replaced with an easy to follow rule of “zealous advocacy,” allowing lawyers to simply ignore how their approach affects the world around them.

Alternatives to Scorched Earth in the field of family law

This change in focus on “zealous advocacy” has resulted in a system of achieving divorce with a reputation for high costs, stress, and damaging effects on people’s lives. My mission in creating Cleland Collaborative Solutions is to offer people a choice. Not only a choice as to how they will achieve a divorce, but also a choice in the sort of attorney people can hire to guide them through a tough time.

Mt. Clemens, Michigan attorney Sean Cleland is an advocate for cooperative, out-of-court divorce and the founder of Cleland Collaborative Solutions. He welcomes questions about collaborative divorce and divorce mediation. You can reach him at (586) 981-0090 or


One of the primary missions of Cleland Collaborative Solutions is to help you resolve your divorce in Michigan without going to court, through mediation and collaborative practice. Learn more about the benefits of these approaches.
Although Cleland Collaborative Solutions sees divorce litigation as a last resort, it may be unavoidable. In these cases, our work centers on protecting your interests while preventing costly, unnecessary battles. Learn about how we help.

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