Fighting for Peace

How personal experience and Boise’s connected community helped transform an industry.

A courtroom is no place for a child.

But for Michelle Crosby, it was too late. At age nine she had already been through years of her parent’s bickering, arguing and fighting. She had been caught in their emotional tug-of-war more times than she could remember.

And now, there she sat. In a courtroom. With her parents, their lawyers and a judge focused on her answer with searing intensity. The judge’s question—one no child should ever have to answer—floated in the air: “If you were stranded on a desert island, which parent would you want to live with?”

The pain of that moment stuck with Michelle for decades. It was her catalyst for pursuing a law degree, with the hope of someday helping families in similar circumstances. But the twists of life and the weight of student loans initially detoured her from family law in favor of a more lucrative path of corporate and securities law.

“I loved the challenge of corporate law,” Michelle explains. “But I always had that pull to help people in a more personal, direct way. I couldn’t ignore it forever.”

Eventually, dissatisfied with her work and exhausted from the large law firm treadmill, she was ready to make a change. She bought books and began researching new careers. She sought advice from friends and mentors. Then, one night at a New Year’s Eve party, a friend posed what would become Michelle’s second life-changing question: “If you could practice law any way you wanted, how would you do it?”

This question, and its ensuing answer, compelled Michelle to learn more about holistic law, a branch of law that considers the entirety of the problem, not just a couple narrow issues. The more she learned, the more she realized she needed a change.

In 2009, she quit her big law firm job and opened up a small, holistic law practice in Boise, Idaho. There, she saw families struggling with the same issues her family had struggled with decades before. She watched couples entering the divorce system with the best of intentions come out the other end battered, broken and, often, plain broke.

There had to be a better way.

One day, while talking through the challenges of divorce cases with a fellow attorney, Michelle had an epiphany: what was needed is an approach that utilizes the principles of holistic law but gives them more structure. She grabbed a napkin and quickly sketched out circles representing the phases most families need to divorce amicably.

Michelle took that sketch back to the office and got to work fleshing out her ideas.

She, with the help of her paralegal Laurie Engelhardt, began creating and documenting her concepts in more concrete terms. Engelhardt, who had crossed paths at legal events and the stable where Michelle boarded her horses, had joined Michelle’s firm a few months earlier, bringing with her 18 years of paralegal experience and a master’s degree in school counseling.

Michelle decided to spin out a separate company to focus on developing this new “product.” She named the company Family Architects, with a vision of helping couples rebuild their relationships as co-parents, even after giving up their roles as husband and wife. (Today, the company is called Wevorce and serves families nationwide.)

About this time Michelle was introduced to Rochelle DeLong, an experienced business coach who specializes in helping new entrepreneurs grow their business and their skills. Rochelle become an equity owner and began working with Michelle on the business foundation, solidifying a structure and defining the human resources needs. More than that, she provided much-needed emotional support as the team birthed this new idea.

“Some days I was a cheerleader, other days a tough coach, depending on what Michelle needed,” Rochelle says.

In the early days, as the concept was being formed, several other people contributed their time and skills to help bring it to life. Attorney Mark Michaud provided assistance with structure and process. Joni Pursell, a long-time financial planner, was one of the company’s first mediators and provided insight in the financial issues divorcing families face.

For months the team experimented with variations of their product. “We were doing the proverbial ‘tinkering in the garage’,” Michelle says.

“We tried many new things. Some worked. Some didn’t. But we always learned a lot.”

Steadily, as the company built its reputation in Boise, it was clear they would need to add to the team. Michelle reached out to Debbie Snow, a trained mediator with a background working with children, to work as the company’s primary co-parenting professional and Fela Scott Dawson, her assistant from a previous job, to help with organizing and preparing documents. Roy Nelson, a Certified Public Accountant, joined the early team to guide families through the financial issues related to divorce. Attorney Merritt Dublin also came on board to guide families in as the company’s first legal professional outside of Michelle.

In 2012, Jeff Reynolds (disclosure: I’m also the author of this piece) began volunteering his time to refine the product, in addition to his company’s work with branding and marketing. He also introduced Michelle to the opportunities of raising capital, a decision that would ultimately lead the company to being funded by the world’s most successful startup accelerator, Y Combinator, as well as a quiver of high-quality investors. This funding allowed the company to invest in creating cutting-edge technology that reduces both the cost and flare-ups associated with a typical divorce.

Today, the company’s technology and methodology are used by a network of attorney and mediator “associates” nationwide. Wevorce is now able to serve families in nearly every state and is widely seen as the world’s premiere amicable divorce company.

“When I think about all we’ve achieved as a company, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by all the people it took to get us here,” says Crosby.

“Not only am I grateful, I am humbled by how this little idea born in Boise continues to spread.”

Note: Learn more about Wevorce.

Photograph by Steve Smith