Vardags: law when it really matters
Happy even after: an interview with David Leckie, Global Director of DivorceHotel

Happy even after: an interview with David Leckie, Global Director of DivorceHotel

By Olivia Burns -

After reporting on the establishment of the UK’s first DivorceHotel in York one year ago, I got back in touch with David Leckie to speak about divorce trends and see how the initiative has grown.

Good afternoon David - or should I say morning - I gather that you’re in LA right now setting up another DivorceHotel?

Good morning from LA! Yes, we’ve been active on the East Coast of the States for three or four years, but the West Coast is a market which is expressing a lot of interest. But it’s going to be a bit of a competition as to whether the first Californian DivorceHotel will be in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

So to start from the beginning, you come from a mediation background, is that right?

Yes, I’m a family mediator but I come from a therapy background. I’ve been a therapist for 25 years. My DivorceHotel partner, Clare Thornton, is a lawyer and she helped to train me as a mediator many years ago. We work well together - she attends to the legal side of things and I tend to concentrate on the emotional issues.

In your capacity as a therapist before you joined DivorceHotel, did you see couples trying to avoid divorce, or going through it, or both?

In my work as a therapist, when a couple comes to see me, I’ve got no agenda as to the direction of the outcome. All I ever want for that couple is that they reach the best outcome possible, whether that be making the relationship work or indeed separating.

Now you’re DivorceHotel’s UK Manager and Global Director, can you give me a bit of background and explain what the company offers?

DivorceHotel started in The Netherlands some six years ago. The company’s founder and CEO Jim Halfens discovered that couples kept reporting three main frustrations in the divorce process:

 

    1. There was often a great deal of uncertainty about when a divorce procedure starts.

 

    1. It was often difficult to get an answer as to when a divorce procedure would end.

 

    1. There was no fixed-fee solution to enable the couple to know exactly how much their divorce would cost before the procedure started.

 


So, to address those issues, he started DivorceHotel: our guests know when it starts, when it ends and, in advance, exactly what it costs. With the help of lawyers and mediators, couples can divorce on neutral territory either in a hotel, an office or online. If they choose the first option, the couple checks into the hotel (in separate rooms) let’s say on a Friday and will have everything ready to send off to court by the end of the weekend. We do everything we can to avoid long lasting procedures which drag out. We believe that, when you are convinced that a divorce is the only option, you should take care of your situation in as time efficient a manner as possible.

What’s DivorceHotel’s mission?

To help as many couples as we can to end their marriage in a timely and affordable way, to do our very best to help them to move on to the most positive new start possible. DivorceHotel helps our guests move from ‘happy ever after’ to ‘happy even after’ as best we can.

Has everything gone as expected so far?

I like that question because I don’t know what ‘as expected’ means. I’m just loving the DivorceHotel journey. What’s happening primarily, particularly off the back of ITV’s Tonight programme in January, is that we’ve got an awful lot of interest from the press and fellow professionals, so our profile has risen quite considerably. We’re developing a global network - we’ve got our very first global conference in The Hague lined up in November. I never know what’s going to happen next - that’s what’s so exciting about it. Gradually, slowly, I think we’re beginning to play our small part in the much bigger picture and challenging the status quo.

Have you noticed that there are any differences between how things are run in the Netherlands, in the UK, in the US?

Oh absolutely. I think the UK is quite a conservative market. The huge difference is in the Netherlands they don’t have the same blame culture. I just think the Dutch are more civilised!

And in the US they’ve got ‘irreconcilable differences’ haven’t they?

That’s right – at least in California that is certainly the case.

Are all the couples coming to DivorceHotel, regardless of the country, looking for the same thing?

I think what attracts most of the clients is that people like the time-limited nature of the service. One client, who worked abroad, loved the fact that he could fly in for a weekend. We do a lot of preparatory work online but clients like knowing what exactly to expect.

I understand that you have a rigorous selection process to make sure the couples who use your services are the best suited. What percentage of couples who contact you make the cut?

That’s quite a hard question in some ways because sometimes a client can contact us and he or she may be further down the road than the other party, so it may not be appropriate now but when they are in a similar-ish emotional place then that’s when we can move forward.  We do have a very detailed intake procedure because it’s in nobody’s interest to take on clients for whom the DivorceHotel solution isn’t going to work.

Do you find that you have particular times in the year when you have peak enquiries?

Like for you, Christmas and September are busier periods – some people have recently indicated that Valentine’s day bought a peak of enquiries but we haven’t noticed that here at DivorceHotel.

Have many couples gone on your retreat then decided that they don’t want to break-up after all?

The answer is none. If there was a situation where we’d got as far as checking into the hotel and then not been able to come to a conclusion then that would indicate a poor intake assessment process. We have had people who have pulled out early - in LA for example we were doing preparatory work with a couple who, as a consequence of embarking on the conscious uncoupling aspect of the process, decided they wanted to get back together again. Great for them, not so good for DivorceHotel - but I’m being cheeky! That happens sometimes. People start to think about the full implications of divorce and sometimes decide not to proceed for whatever reason, or maybe to give the marriage one last try.

As the idea behind DivorceHotel is to split on the best terms, do all the couples cite ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or does anyone cite adultery etc?

Oh yes, definitely. We’ve had many people citing adultery in the UK.

That’s interesting and not what I’d expected. Have you had any couples asking specifically for a ‘conscious uncoupling’?

Yes a few, on the back of some news reports – but DivorceHotel doesn’t particularly advertise it. I’ve only been involved with DivorceHotel myself for a couple of years, but I am particularly interested in the conscious uncoupling process. As DivorceHotel develops, I think more and more clients will want to consider using our service in order to have the emotional aspects of their divorce properly attended to - emotional support is such a critically important part of the divorce process. Of course, first and foremost, we work with our guests to get the practicalities of the divorce sorted, but we’re also looking to prepare people for the future, to help them to move on to the next stage of their lives and I think the conscious uncoupling process is very helpful for that. After all, divorce doesn’t just affect two people: it affects the wider family, children, grandparents as well as Great Aunt Doris. There are so many ripple effects. The marriage may be about to end, but it really is possible to have a positive relationship going forward.

Are there ever situations where one party is perhaps looking to use the veneer of the amicable split so that they can manipulate their assets or something like that?

If we have any suspicions whatsoever that it isn’t a genuinely appropriate case for DivorceHotel, we don’t take it on. We may well have lost people like that in the process – but sometimes it just doesn’t feel right and we only want to work with clients who genuinely want to achieve a positive separation.

Couples who don’t want to blame each other but still have to cite unreasonable behaviour must find that difficult?

Yes they do. That’s what you might have seen in the case of Paul and Janet, the couple featured on the ITV programme. They found it challenging, but we helped them find the right wording, without over-egging the pudding as it were. After all, you don’t have to give an awful lot of detail. I know stories where the other party have felt the need to give huge great justifications, and you think what’s that all about?  Why did you do that? Is that helpful?

Maybe once it starts unravelling, it’s a bit too tempting to keep on pulling at the string!

Exactly - that’s where blame raises its head again. Some parties want to name the person their partner was adulterous with. It just makes matters worse and worse.

The fact of the matter is, if we are divorcing each other- sorry to be temporarily married to you Olivia- whatever has happened in our relationship, neither of us can blame the other and say ‘Olivia, it’s all your fault’ or ‘David, it’s all your fault’ - we just can’t!  We also need to look at ourselves and be prepared to ask the painful question ‘what is it about me that allowed that behaviour to carry on? What can I learn about myself in order to avoid the repetition of those aspects of myself as I go forward?’

And so, *drum roll*, do you think it’s time for no-fault divorce?

Absolutely. The time has been right for ages and don’t get me going on how Brexit is blocking any progress. We just want to play our small part in joining the cacophony of voices calling for this.

Do you think that the UK will legislate it and, if so, do you have any idea about a time scale?

I have no idea about timescale – but yesterday would be good!

This may sound like a trick question, but if the UK did legislate no-fault divorce and amicable splits were no longer so hard to achieve, do you think that would affect your business?

Interesting, but far from it. Holland is where DivorceHotel all started and they’ve got a no-blame culture there. It’s such a popular solution in the Netherlands because I think people like the fixed cost, fixed time scale aspect to it.

Recently the biggest shift in divorce trends has been online divorce – over the last six months we’ve seen the MoJ pilot scheme, then the Co-op initiative and Hollywood divorce lawyer Laura Wasser’s new website. Do you think this new way to divorce will continue to gain momentum?

They’re huge markets. I think online divorce is helping to keep on shaking the market up and these sites are helpful and useful to many clients.

I was looking through some of the quotes about you in the press and saw one from New York Observer calling you the ‘Uber for divorce’- what do you think about that?

The trouble of course is that since that quote was first made Uber has suffered a reputational damage issue. Here in LA I’ve been using Uber so much this last week because it does exactly what is says on the tin – you know exactly what it’s going to cost you, you know exactly when its going to start and even when it’s going to end. In that respect, I still like the comparison.

So what are your ambitions for DivorceHotel going forward?

I’m responsible for the UK and global development and I can say we’ve got some very interesting partnerships in the pipeline! As well as developing in the US, we intend to open up several more divorce hotels in the UK over the next year. At the moment we’re based in York but this year will see us providing DivorceHotel solutions in a number of other locations as well as developing our team. I’m really interested in developing professional relationships with lawyers and mediators who think along similar lines as us – people who see the value in adding in the conscious uncoupling material for clients who are suited to the process.

Excellent. Thank you very much – it’s good to speak to you again and to hear that DivorceHotel is booming.

Well thank you, let’s keep in touch!

If you would like to know more about the issues covered in this article, Vardags offers a free consultation to qualifying individuals.

For high net worth and ultra high net worth individuals or their companies, our confidential enquiry line is staffed 24 hours. Call 020 7404 9390 today.

Olivia Burns

Olivia worked at Vardags from September 2016 to March 2018 as an in-house journalist. Before joining Vardags, Olivia interned at the language co…