I have to admit it. I have not always been a fan of the 4-way conference. Often, they have been the bastion of bad behavior, posturing and often just not as productive as mediation with attorneys present or negotiations back and forth, in writing, between counsel. That said, I am beginning to come around to seeing the usefulness of earlier meetings and earlier mediations, where appropriate, to try to resolve as much as possible, as early as possible. In fact, I was recently reminded of the importance of the willingness to meet when an opposing counsel was fired, seemingly because that attorney refused to meet or even pick up a phone to discuss issues.
The meetings do not have to be simply for settlement. More often than not, couples continue to reside in the same household while the divorce case is pending. Often in these cases, at best, people are on edge and at worst, it is the War of the Roses. In these situations, an early meeting can be helpful to address conduct and civility within the home and perhaps interim exclusive parenting time between each party and the child(ren). The alternative could be a domestic violence situation (real or bogus) which could possibly have been avoided. Temporary support issues can be discussed. The use, sale and/or restraints on assets can be addressed. A source of funds for payment of counsel or expert fees can be discussed. There really is no limit to what can be addressed.
Since custody and parenting time are issues that the courts want to have resolved sooner than later, because custody evaluations take a long time and are expensive, an early meeting can root out whether there are bona fide issues, or whether a settlement on these issues can be reached.
Other times, these meetings are a good opportunity to allow one or both party with something "on their chest" to have the cathartic experience of getting something off their chest. In some cases, this allows the issues in the case to be addressed now that this is behind the parties.
In other cases, the entire case can be settled or at least a framework for settlement can be reached, subject to the exchange of certain documents so that each side can be comfortable that they know everything that there is to know. Even if you cannot settle, you get to learn about the other side’s positions, issues, perhaps evidence, etc.
While we are used to and adept at litigation and while some cases require some (if not a lot of litigation), this is not the case in every divorce. Even in high conflict matters, meetings and opening a real dialog can help to keep the lid on things so that the attention can be turned to the real issues. Figuring when to meet is the trick. Refusing to meet, at all, is usually a mistake. Usually something good can come of it.