Michelle Crosby, co-founder and CEO of divorce mediation start-up Wevorce, knew what she wanted to do when she was nine. Six years into an epic custody battle, one of her parents’ lawyers put her on the stand and asked her which parent she would want to be with on a desert island. “At nine, you can’t answer that question, and you shouldn’t have to,” she says. “At nine, I knew this space was broken.”
For years, Crosby wanted to find a way to help families go through the divorce process amicably, to help them stay a family even as marriages ended. The idea was to keep families out of court by mapping out the process and making agreements early on. Reducing paperwork and reducing time in the lawyer’s office and with their support staff would cut timeand costs.
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But as a lawyer at a big firm, seven years into a partnership track, she realized she was far from her goal of helping families. She quit her job, went to Harvard Law School for mediation training, opened her own practice and started working with families.
But at a New Year’s Eve party at the end of 2009, a friend asked her how the new practice was going, and she realized she was missing a lot of the key pieces that could make divorce a less adversarial process. She wrote out what would become the six big tenets of the Wevorce system on the back of a napkin: amicable divorce planning, sustainable co-parenting planning, a parenting agreement, financial mapping, financial agreements, and a divorce settlement.
“Most attorneys don’t take the time to customize the divorce process,” Crosby says. “We give them tools about what to expect, how to communicate, and to make sure everyone understands the rules.” In that first week of 2010, she started building the model for the process.
Now, families start with training and suggested steps, and are given a timeframe and a cost up front, based on factors like where they are in the process and the size of their estate. They talk about hypothetical parenting situations—for example, whether one parent should consult with the other before getting a child’s ears pierced—and know in advance what to expect. “Highly emotional people do things they regret later,” she says, “so we come up with a contract building agreements on how much money they can spend without checking in and where the kids will be.”
Because one spouse generally manages family finances,Wevorce makes sure that the other spouse knows all of the account numbers, what the assets are, and how much it costs to live.
Instead of relying on two lawyers, the couple will have a single attorney, or “legal architect,” to help them through the process and make sure both parties are adhering to their agreements. If necessary, they also have access to a “co-parenting architect” who has been schooled in counseling and communication and a “financial architect” who is a CPA or certified divorce financial analyst.
Wevorce started in Boise in what Crosby calls “basement mode” in 2010; they began building out the technology piece of the puzzle and started growing their presence across five states when they joined the Y Combinator startup accelerator in January. Now, they have lawyers in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Boise, and Asheville, NC.
The company’s software walks families through the process, cutting out the cost of assistants and paralegals that are often part of the system. Having a single lawyer also brings the cost down. The average divorce costs about $27,000, Crosby says, but most Wevorce families finish the process for less than $10,000, though charges range between $3,000 and $15,000.
But adding technology to streamline divorce doesn’t mean families are going through the process without the help of real human beings. “We’re high tech, high-touch,” Crosby says. “We really believe when going through divorce, [families] need someone to touch base with to get through the process. “ For Crosby, it’s about providing a more humane way for families to navigate what can be a very contentious and scarring process.
So far, of the 100 families that Wevorce has worked with, only one has had to go to court.
Companies like Berkeley, CA-based Nolo have long offered do-it-yourself legal kits, and there are at least a couple of other legal startups in the tech space, such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. But Wevorce is alone in its mission to take on divorce. “Lawyers don’t like new technology,” Crosby says. “We’ve had to design it to make it so user friendly. We have one of the hardest user groups out there.”
Starting the company has also been helpful for Crosby’s family. As the divorced child of a divorced couple, she’s lived every aspect of the process. And now her endeavor has forced a lot of conversations in her own family about how her own parents can successfully co-grandparent her brother’s children. “We call it ‘operation don’t pass it on,’” she says. “We have to make sure this doesn’t impact generations to come.”