Mary Ellen Malas is proof that parental pronouncements really do have an impact on impressionable young children.

Because every time Mary Ellen won yet another argument as a child, her father would look at her and say, "You know, you should be a lawyer."

So she became one, but in a roundabout way. At 22, recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with no idea what to do, Malas took a job as a "gofer" at Keating, Muething & Klekamp. She filled in as a receptionist, lunch picker-upper, and document deliverer. After three months, she moved up to a paralegal position, and three years later decided to continue working at KMK while attending Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky Univer-sity at night. In 1991, she joined the firm as a full-fledged attorney.

Eventually, Malas convinced the partners to allow her to branch out into a specialty at the time "” family law, which includes divorce, custody, family relationship issues, prenuptial agreements, succession planning, and more.

Today, 13 years into her career, Malas has branched into yet another specialty called collaborative law, and she's convinced the movement could "forever change divorce law as we know it."

Collaborative law undermines the he-vs.-she concepts traditionally associated with divorce. Under a collaborative arrangement, a divorcing husband and wife hire separate lawyers who are trained in collaborative law, which is built on the concept of mediation. All four "” the couple and both attorneys "” agree not to sue each other and to resolve all issues without court fights, no matter how long it takes.

"I went to law school to help people, and I feel like I'm helping people at the worst times of their life," says Malas, a 42-year-old happily married stepmother who says her own blended family gives her firsthand experience with family challenges. "Divorce is almost worse than death in a certain way, because you have the rejection and the hurt, and if children are involved ... there are so many layers of emotion."

Collaborative law, however, replaces bitterness and anger with a sense of cooperation and common sense.

"The four of us work as a team," Malas says. "If you're the wife and I'm representing you, I'm also representing your husband's goals. When you change your mindset and look at the greater good, you can do that "” represent the wife's goals, the husband's goals, the children's goals. We have all the same mentality that we're not going to drag each other through the mud. If you throw mud in the process, you never get over it. But collaborative law is really revolutionizing divorce law."

Being a divorce lawyer, she points out, is difficult work because the hard-core issues of money, home ownership, retirement plans, children, and dreams are tied in with the very real issues of separation, loss, anger, and raw emotion.

"But I really enjoy it, and I really enjoy my clients," she says. "It helps that I'm probably the happiest married person I've ever met. ... I can be strong for my clients."