End of year. Time to reflect and take stock. Time to recharge and reset.
What single work-related event or experience stood out for you in 2017? A colleague posed that question at a recent holiday party. I could have mentioned any number of challenging files I mediated, the thought-provoking programs I attended or the many interesting personalities I encountered through my work.
But, what immediately came to mind was a late winter day in March when I addressed a group of law students at the Western University Law School.
Many months before, I had received an email from Nathalie Gondek, a second-year law student and Student Coordinator of its Dispute Resolution Centre (DRC). Nathalie explained in her note that every year the DRC hosts a series of speaker events on alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to enable students to gain a practitioner's perspective and, due to my expertise in mediation, they were hoping I’d agree to speak at their Spring Lunch and Learn about my more interesting mediation experiences, particularly in the field of complex commercial disputes.
March in London, Ontario? I imagined driving through white outs and snow drifts along the 401.
A quick search of the law school’s website provided the following information about the DRC:
- Established in 1993 by two law school professors to provide training to student mediators and free mediation services for the London-Middlesex County
- Eight trained student interns assist two coordinators with mediations and other programming
- Intern positions are filled through a competitive application process in the fall of each year
- Student interns mediate a wide range of disputes including breach of contract, debt, roommate and landlord-tenant conflicts, neighbour disagreements and employment issues
- In partnership with local youth and employment groups, the DRC delivers conflict resolution training workshops
- In 2014, the DRC launched the 810 Court Project, with DRC interns attending the London courthouse to offer mediation as an alternative to parties seeking or defending peace bonds
- In 2016, the internship program was expanded to include training and community practice in negotiation on behalf of clients, making it the most intensive ADR clinic offered by an Ontario law school
This was a program with a robust history making a meaningful contribution to the London community. I was intrigued. I relished the opportunity to share my passion for ADR with a group of law students. I accepted the invitation.
I’m a Western Law grad (BA, 1982; LL.B., 1985) and it had been years since I’d been back to campus. Aside from a work-related visit to London in 2015, where I didn’t have time to visit the law school, it had probably been 25 years since I last visited the law school. So, fittingly, I treated the visit as a proper pilgrimage. I took the train and eschewed a cab for my feet for the 5.5 kilometer distance from the station to the law school, savouring old haunts along Richmond Street (The Ceeps, Joe Kools) and taking in old and new buildings on campus, all sharing the distinctive limestone construction that defines Western’s look.
I made my way to the DRC office located in a new wing of the law school where I was greeted by Nathalie and the program’s Assistant Student Coordinator, Craig Gilchrist, and introduced to Co-Directors, Margaret Capes and Doug Ferguson. After lunch at a campus pub, generously covered by my hosts, it was time for my presentation.
The many promotional posters plastered around the school left no doubt that my presentation would be delivered in Room 51. The last time I was in Room 51 was to write my labour law final in 1985.
The questions from the students kept me on my toes, ranging from the challenges of dealing with self-represented litigants, to managing power imbalances to the state of mandatory mediation under the Ontario Mandatory Mediation Program. But, one student’s questions gave me pause: “What aspects of your law school experience inspired you to pursue a career in ADR?” And then, the clincher: “What courses in ADR were offered back then?”
My inner voice spoke to me: There was nothing about my law school experience that prepared me or led me towards a career in ADR. I took a moment to gather myself. And then, I described the law school learning landscape that I was exposed to in the early to mid-1980’s, which certainly didn’t include any mention of “interest-based negotiation,” “Alternative Dispute Resolution” and “ADR”. There were no courses offered in “mediation” and no clinical opportunities to conduct mediation. The closest reference to ADR that I could recall were the large number of Western law professors who served as labour arbitrators to supplement their income. That was it! I explained that my interest in ADR grew organically out of my early days as a litigation lawyer and my disillusionment with the adversarial civil litigation system, particularly its costly, inefficient and uncertain outcomes, and a commitment to helping clients find solutions to their disputes that were cost-effective, timely and responsive to their interests. There was silence. On one hand, I felt much like a pioneering explorer; on the other hand, I felt old.
I took my first 40 hour courses in mediation in 1994 and I began mediating before the year was out. Back then the field of ADR felt new, fresh and wide open. There were few of us in Ontario who dared to embark on a career in the field, offering training, consulting and mediation services. But, for those of us that had the passion, vision and determination, this was the start of a new movement and these were exciting times.
More than 20 years later, hardly a week goes by without an inquiry about how to go about starting a mediation practice. I take the time to respond to each inquiry, often over coffee. I am thrilled with the growth of the field of ADR, and mediation in particular, and I am happy to share my experience, interest and passion in the same way that a few others did with me when I was finding my way in the field.
I was recently interviewed by Advocate Daily to share my thoughts and tips on starting a mediation practice. While I acknowledge in the article that the field is now crowded, I’m optimistic that opportunities abound for the passionate and creative.
Why the optimism? Two things: ADR is now part of our everyday lexicon and today’s youth are being immersed in its principles and values. We talk naturally about “interests” when we negotiate and most of us strive for “win/win” solutions to our disputes. Our kids are growing up in a world that has embraced the vocabulary of collaborative problem solving. My teenage kids are being taught “conflict resolution skills” in school and entire schools take “mindful moment” breaks together to get centred, present and in-tune with their feelings and needs and those of their peers. Many Canadian institutions of higher learning offer training and academic programs in negotiation and dispute resolution, from continuing education programs at local community colleges (see, for example, Seneca College, Durham College and Centennial College) and universities (see, for example, York University, University of Toronto and University of Waterloo), to masters programs in conflict management (Royal Roads University) and ADR (Osgoode Hall), to a multitude of options in Ontario law schools ranging from specialized options (University of Ottawa and Osgoode Hall) and electives in ADR (Queens University), to grass roots student clubs (University of Toronto) and mediation clinics that serve the community (Osgoode Hall and Western University).
As one year closes and another opens, it is my pleasure and practice to make a charitable donation in honour of clients, colleagues, and friends. This year I have expanded the net and made a generous donation to Western Law School, to be applied towards ADR related initiatives, to honour the next generation of mediators and dispute resolvers.
Happy New Year!
* With a nod to the seminal song by The Who (copyright 1965), written by Pete Townshend as a tribute to the Mods, a fashion trend-sending and rebellious British youth movement that started in London, England in 1958.