Peace Maker: Problem solving nothing new to Peace Corps vet

By Brett DeGroff
Legal News

Natalie Alane thinks about the problem of divorce differently than most.

The Lansing-based attorney employs a collaborative approach, which moves most of the divorce process out of the courtroom and focuses on reaching the best outcome for the entire family. The idea makes perfect sense, even it if defies convention a bit. But Alane has never been one to let convention, or anything else, stand in the way of finding the best solution.

The collaborative approach uses a series of meetings to hammer out an agreement between the divorcing parties. But rather than being set up as an adversarial negotiation involving just the parties and their attorneys, the collaborative approach also involves a mental health coach for each party and a representative for the children.

“I look for ways to solve problems, not exacerbate them,” Alane said. “When people are getting divorced, there is already a lot of anger, guilt, hurt and other emotions. If we pit people against each other, there is no chance anything is going to get better.”

There are some objective benefits to the approach that are easy to appreciate.  Because the process involves open financial disclosure, there is no formal discovery. This saves costs. Everything in the sessions is private rather than playing out in public hearings and court documents. The parties control the timing rather than a court. This approach appealed to Alane from the start.

“I thought that if I was going to do this kind of work, I was going to do what I could to help families around the some of the negative consequences,” Alane said.

The collaborative approach does just that, and Alane says her clients echo this notion.

Finding a different and better solution to a problem is nothing new to Alane, who acquired an unconventional approach to problem solving during her 2-1/2-year stint with the Peace Corps in a Zambian village, Kashikishi.  Alane learned and spoke the local language, Bemba.

“I lived in a hut with no running water and no electricity,” Alane said. “I was working on community health, assessing what health issues the village was facing, and working to address them.”
Kashikishi had several health issues. After working with the villagers to identify the problems they saw, Alane realized many were mere symptoms of a common problem, a lack of clean water. That meant digging a well. Kashikishi is located near the shore of Lake Mweru and the ground was sandy. This meant most wells in the area were shallow and collapsed easily. In the dry season, wells would hold a bit of orange and mucky water at best, and often nothing at all.

In the United States, digging a well can be accomplished with a phone call and a check. But in Zambia, the problem is much more difficult. First, Alane walked the villagers through applying for a grant, and they secured one from a Finnish organization. But, the grant was only enough to cover the cost of the concrete and molds. That left Alane and the villagers to dig the well and mix the concrete by hand - over the course of a year. They dug a 75-foot well and lowered in concrete rings to reinforce the sides. The well was five times deeper than any well in the area and provided clean water year round.

“I like to think the experience changed my approach to problem solving,” Alane said. “I hope it is a lot broader. The Zambians as are an extremely resilient people. They get along in life and survive in ways we cannot imagine. I hope the experience broadened my perspective on many things.”

In addition to collaborative family law, Alane’s practice includes a substantial amount of general appellate work. Alane and her business partner, Mary Chartier, co-founded their firm, Alane & Chartier, after clerking for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh. During her clerkship, Alane worked on issues ranging from the extent of citizen rights under the Michigan Constitution, to use public libraries, to their right to walk along the shores of the Great Lakes.

“Justice Cavanagh is a great boss, and the environment was supportive and intellectual,” Alane said. “I loved it.”

Alane & Chartier is almost five years old and the practice is thriving. The firm recently acquired and moved into a 100-year old building near the Capitol. The building was built in 1898 and occupied by Fredrick Cowles Jenison, for whom Michigan State University’s Jenison Field House was named, until 1939 when it was bought by a precursor to the American Lung Association. Alane & Chartier is the building’s third owner.

Alane also teaches at Cooley Law School as an adjunct professor and hikes in her spare time. Alane recently summited Mt. Rainier, a 14,411-foot volcano southeast of Seattle. The climb required Alane to use an ice axe and crampons as well as to be tethered to other climbers. While roping together lessened the danger of falling, it also proved to be somewhat inconvenient when rocks came bounding down the mountain slope toward them.

“To have summited Mt. Rainier is definitely one of my greatest accomplishments,” Alane said.