Family Law Mediation Clinic students learn by doing during pandemic
When 3L Jonathan D. Prucher signed up for the Family Law Mediation Clinic, he expected the work would be helping people fill out forms, but wound up being part of a pandemic-fueled virtual update of the program.
“I didn’t really understand how much they’re developing mediation and alternative dispute resolution,” he says. “It was so much more robust that what I thought it would be.”
Established in 2016, the clinic, led by Professor Lisa Klerman, director, gives law students experience helping parents mediate customized parenting plans. They do this under the supervision of Southern California Family Mediation (SCFM), an organization boasting an impressive 94% in-person agreement rate between co-parents. Funded through private donations, SCFM was founded by Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Marilyn Mordetzky after budget cuts in 2014 closed 48 courthouses and eliminated the mediation program at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court. The partnership with USC Gould followed two years later, providing 2L and 3L students experience in co-mediating with SCFM’s volunteer mediators.
SCFM helps divorcing parents agree on a parenting plan detailing how they will share custody of their children, from holiday schedules to handoff protocols. The process is potentially fraught, and March 2020 proved especially challenging because of a sudden closure of the courts due to COVID-19.
“I didn’t expect it to be two years,” says Randy Drew, SCFM co-founder, of the pandemic-related challenges. Mordetzky, fearing a prolonged public health crisis and worried about a case logjam at the children’s court, sounded a call to action. Drew quickly gathered the USC Gould students and SCFM mediators, signed up for Zoom accounts and cobbled together an online version of their lauded mediation program. A mediation process that required a single administrator now took five people and 18 steps, and the program strove to keep the new wrinkles from adversely affecting parents.
“Keep in mind, these are the most underserved and underfunded families in the county. They sometimes need extra handholding,” says Drew. “They need to be informed and they need to understand what’s happening.” SCFM and USC Gould’s students adapted to the needs of the moment, serving more than 600 families on a virtual basis. SCFM now features a self-service booking system hosted on their website, a better developed online dispute resolution process, hard-earned lessons to draw from and a continuous pipeline of inspired students like Prucher. “I can’t really express how important this experience is to someone who’s going to be a lawyer. Law is not always about faceless transactions, rich rewards, damages and repair. This is a chance for us to be of service to people when they need it the most,” he says.
Prucher says the online mediation process can work to the advantage of parents, who find the new virtual mediation appointments more convenient to attend and are more open to dialogue when they are in comfortable environments like their homes. Drew agrees: “We will always keep an online component for sure.”