Hope for harmony

USC Gould School of Law • August 14, 2023
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USC Gould’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program has local, global impact

By Matthew Kredell

People come from far and wide to learn the skills of dispute resolution at USC Gould School of Law. Sarah Tamang enrolled in USC Gould’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program after seeing how local government in Nepal, where she’s from, has encouraged ADR in legal conflicts.

“Nepal is a small country and many people don’t have the money to hire lawyers or much knowledge about court processes,” says Tamang, who graduated this year with an LLM in ADR. “Since I’m also a lawyer, I know how tedious, expensive and time-consuming litigation can be. I wanted to help people live happy lives through mediation instead of going to court and expanding tensions.”

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) can help parties in civil cases resolve conflicts quicker, cheaper and more amicably through mediation and arbitration. USC Gould offers two degree programs in ADR: a Master of Laws (LLM) for those with a law degree and a Master of Dispute Resolution (MDR) for non-lawyers, as well as a 12-unit certificate.

“What’s unique about dispute resolution is it applies to everybody,” says Richard Peterson, director of the USC Gould Center for Dispute Resolution. “We have students in our program from 40 different countries. We have students that are judges, longtime lawyers, business owners, from careers in human resources, medicine and education. It’s universal and it’s transformative. It changes the way people think and behave when they are in conflict. And conflict is a natural part of the human experience.”

Tamang works as a legal advisor for the Nepal-based nonprofit Hands in Outreach, which empowers marginalized girls and women to lift themselves out of poverty.

“There was a very cross-cultural aspect to studying ADR at USC Gould,” Tamang says. “My classmates came from all over the world, sharing their own cultural aspects in this very multicultural city. Mediation involves understanding the issues of people from difficult cultures.”

Melody Wang

For Melody Wang (MDR 2019), a mediation career lined up with her goals. She grew up in Taiwan, went to high school in Beijing and then double majored in psychology and political science at Southern Methodist University. She began looking at law schools but dispute resolution caught her attention.

“I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed being an attorney but I’m not sure that kind of lifestyle was for me,” Wang says. “I think in this country that there’s always a solution if you can help the parties communicate with each other, so mediation seemed like the perfect fit for me.”

Wang is an example of the impact the program makes both on communities locally and around the world.

Through her own consulting company, Wang Mediation, she has worked as a mediator in federal court in Los Angeles and the New York Supreme Court (Queens County). She hopes to work in negotiation and conflict resolution for the United Nations.

“I’m really happy with the work I’m doing and think I’m making a really positive impact in my community,” Wang says. “Working with the Asian-American community and helping families really brings me joy and helps fulfill me as a person.”

Walter Gonzalez

Walter Gonzalez (MDR 2022) used experience as his guide as he proceeded through Gould’s ADR program. As someone with autism who grew up in an inner-city environment, Gonzalez faced conflicts with teachers and administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He felt a connection with Peterson, who spent 15 years directing a clinic at Pepperdine University on resolving conflicts in connection to children with learning disabilities. That’s what Gonzalez hopes to do in his career.

“In my personal history with special education, I dealt with some teachers who were impatient in terms of helping me succeed,” Gonzalez says. “My mother and I had to fight with the school system. What made me want to get into special education dispute resolution is to try my best to prevent others from going through what I went through. If we get the right help and support, we can achieve great things just as people who don’t have learning disabilities.”

In the Practical Mediation Skills Clinic, LLM and MDR students take what they learned in classroom simulations into the real world to mediate actual cases in the California court system. Wang and Gonzalez say it was during this clinic that they fell in love with mediation.

Gonzalez found the clinic so valuable that he continues to volunteer as a mediator in Los Angeles Small Claims Court to build experience.

“It’s typical for people to come in angry,” Gonzalez says. “Often they just want to feel heard. I want them to see that I care, that I know what conflict feels like and I’m here to help. Mediation is incredibly important because it creates harmony between parties.”

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