Mark Harris was waiting for his wife to finish up work one day in her family law office as she furiously punched numbers into her adding machine and the narrow paper feed was flying out and piling up on the floor. It occurred to him that there must be an easier way to do this.
That’s how in November of 1987, Toronto-based DIVORCEmate Software Inc. came to be – an operation that Harris describes as a one-man, one spreadsheet operation at its inception.
“It was me and my compact luggable – it looked like a sewing machine,” he recalls. “At first, I was selling a spreadsheet for $99.”
Harris says DIVORCEmate’s products were simple at first, but the company has evolved to offer a suite of software apps to family law practitioners across Canada. The tools promise to free lawyers and legal assistants from tedious manual form filling and brain-bending calculations that are an inevitable part of their routine.
Twenty-one years ago, divorce cases resulted in spousal and child support payments that were largely determined by a judge’s best guess and gut feeling for how money and property should be divvied up.
Now that archaic system has been transformed into one that’s precise. That precision, however, comes at a cost. It requires complex calculations, involving ever-shifting variables and seemingly unending iterations.
But at least one Canadian lawyer says DIVORCEmate is capable of handling all this, as it’s capabilities have evolved along with the law of the land.
“I use it in every single family law case,” says Lawrence Pascoe, an Ottawa-based lawyer.
Pascoe says in a divorce proceeding, one of his first interactions with a new client is usually to collect their personal information and enter it into DIVORCEmate. From there, he can immediately get to work on figuring out how much property the client is entitled to, and start resolving child support payment amounts.
“It’s a very hard formula, and I don’t think I could do it without DIVORCEmate,” Pascoe says. “You put in years of cohabitation and multiply that by 1.5 per cent, and then you put in the amount of taxes paid… it’s just a very difficult fraction that would take me forever to figure out, and you’re changing everything all the time.”
The number-crunching components, which are part of the DIVORCEmate Tools One package, enable lawyers to create several different scenarios of spousal support payments — a capability that could come in handy when negotiating a payment amount between the couple seeking divorce.
The tools can also perform the numerous calculations needed to properly determine child support payments. According to Harris, doing such calculations manually can be a huge challenge because when one variable shifts – for example, the salary of one spouse – everything else must change as a result.
“There are hundreds of numbers and descriptions of financial instruments that during the process of a divorce, have to be updated all the time,” Harris says. “It’s a huge time saver to not have to re-type all the forms or go back and white out the old numbers.”
Despite crunching complex calculations, the software has a simple interface. Its forms work through a template in either Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect.
Users open up DIVORCEmate and choose what form they want to create or edit, and a word processing document is brought up from there.
Files are created for each client. Lawyers need to enter information once, and then that data is populated in the range of forms created for that client. So, for instance, there’s no need to re-type a client’s name and address multiple times.
The software application can handle around 150 different forms associated with divorce proceedings. Completed forms are fit to be presented in court.
Offering a simple word processing interface was key to winning over lawyers, typically not great embracers of technology, according to Harris.
Pascoe says the application helps him with cumbersome, repititive tasks. “There must be 15 forms there that I use all the time. DIVORCEmate fills in the basic information and I fill in the rest of the details.”
Pascoe pays around $1,000 annually to license the software. A package that includes all of the suite’s tools would cost about $1,500 annually, Harris estimates. He says the price also includes full support for the software.
“We have the software automatically check out the Web site every two weeks,” Harris says. There are constant updates as a result of law tweaking being done in provincial jurisdictions across the country.
The software company also regularly receives feedback from its user base and says it will update its offering to fit their needs better.
Pascoe rcalls how he was one of a few users upset when DIVORCEmate discontinued one particular worksheet. But he says when he and some others requested it be brought back with some improvements, their advice was heeded. “They said if someone wants it, we’ll put it back. I see more lawyers using [the form] now.”
The Ottawa-based lawyer says he takes advantage of additional information and assistance provided via the company’s newsletter — such as software tips, and “reasonably priced” training courses.
DIVORCEmate is used mostly in Ontario and B.C., Harris says. It is fine-tuned for the provincial laws there, but many tools still apply in other provinces and allow components of the software to be used across the country.
The aim, says Harris, is to make a painful process just a little bit easier. “Divorce isn’t a pleasant thing and there are no winners.”
But the software company is starting to wade into more positive life events. It just released a tool to build a marriage contract last week.