Joan McWilliams is an attorney, mediator, peacemaker, and writer from Denver, Colorado, who has devoted her career to compassionate conflict resolution and family wellbeing. Through her pioneering mediation practice focused on amicable divorce, legislative advocacy for ethical reforms, authoring books guiding families through divorce, and championing peacemaking as a core tenet of dispute resolution, she has empowered countless families to resolve conflicts with empathy.
After starting her career as an attorney, Joan began to recognize that litigation often engenders trauma and damages relationships, and her preference was for the cases that she could settle on more amicable terms. In the 1980s, as the field of mediation was just emerging on the East Coast, Joan realized that constructive conflict resolution was more “consistent with who I am and what I’m about.” She began taking mediation courses at Harvard, which opened her eyes to this new approach which sought to minimize harm and empower people.
Having discovered her passion, Joan decided to open her own firm focused on divorce mediation, helping couples to dissolve their marriages in a more amicable manner. Over the past three decades, Joan has mediated over 3000 divorce cases. She aims to keep couples in collaborative, open discussion, shifting mindsets away from adversarial proceedings. Joan works to explain the law while also stressing the lasting emotional and psychological impacts of anger and fighting on families, and especially children. Her nuanced approach has empowered countless families to transition to their new life chapter with compassion.
A passionate advocate of peace and justice
Beyond her mediation practice, Joan has been instrumental in enacting legislative changes to promote more ethical divorce proceedings. She helped institute Colorado’s Parental Responsibilities Act, amending legal language from “custody” and “visitation” to recognize ongoing parenting relationships after divorce. Joan also advocated for adding guidance to the Code of Professional Responsibility, which urges lawyers to advise clients how anger and fighting can traumatize children. Most recently, Joan has been working to establish a Domestic Relations Unified Court system in Colorado that will be dedicated to achieving a knowledgeable and trauma-informed judicial process. She aims to shift the legal culture towards a less adversarial, more educational approach that is guided by judges who are thoroughly trained in family law and family dynamics.
Inspired by her passion for protecting children from the trauma of divorce, Joan has authored several books on the subject. Her book Parenting Plans for Families After Divorce provides guidance to parents on preserving ongoing family relationships post-divorce, while Understanding the Effects of Conflict and Divorce examines the extensive research on adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. It gives parents research-backed advice on mitigating trauma such as using a calm tone of voice, limiting arguments, and involving kids in routines.
Parallel to her divorce mediation practice, Joan has long maintained a commitment to peacemaking in all spheres of life. She authored the book The Peace Finder during the onset of the Iraq War, concerned by the extensive harm to civilians and children, who were often invisible from the wartime narrative. In the book, Joan puts forth a practical 10-step framework for achieving world peace through individual responsibility, introspection, and compassion.
Joan sees peacemaking as the fundamental basis of mediation. She aims to facilitate mutual understanding between people, paving the path to resolve conflicts constructively. Whether mediating a divorce or an international dispute, Joan believes the universal desire for peace can triumph over division. She strives to highlight mediation’s profound capacity to not only resolve disputes, but also promote emotional healing and wellbeing. Joan reflects, “It’s peace in the family, it’s peace in the community, and it’s peace in the world.”
Above all, Joan has never wavered from her central mission to make the world more just, equitable and peaceful. Through mediation, writing, speaking, coaching, and legislation, she empowers people to resolve conflicts with compassion, geared towards a greater good. Joan exemplifies how mediators can create positive systemic change, advancing human understanding on issues large and small.
Article by Natalie Dewar, MBBI Writer