No dispute: Mediation Clinic succeeds online during COVID

Greg Hardesty • July 14, 2021
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Students hone problem-solving skills during challenging year  

The mother had visitation rights 60% of the time, but the father wanted equal time with their three-year-old daughter.

During an all-day mediation session, 3L Gabriela Rodriguez eventually got both parties in the emotionally charged case to reach an agreement: two days with mom, two days with dad, and alternating each week for the other three days.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the successful mediation – an increasingly popular tool to avoid the expense, unpredictability and emotional drama of a courtroom trial — played out entirely on Zoom.

As mediation clinics at some other universities shuttered because of courtroom closures caused by the pandemic, USC Gould’s Mediation Clinic continued to thrive, says Director Lisa Klerman, a clinical professor of law who designed and launched the mediation program in 2007.

That’s because pre-pandemic, Klerman says, the 30-some students who participated in the two-semester clinic already had experience mediating over email, the telephone and other avenues not requiring in-person meetings at the local courthouses.

“Having a program that offers a diversity of experiences for our student mediators has been crucial for them to be able to continue their work during the [pandemic],” Klerman says.

No one appreciates that more than Rodriguez, one of 12 USC Gould students who participated in the mediation clinic this academic year (reduced from the usual 20 because of COVID-19). Seven additional students participated in the advanced medication clinic, reserved for students with a year’s experience as mediators who take on more complex cases.

Cases are referred through partnerships with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a federal EEOC program; the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA), and directly.

3L Skyler Hicks has spent several hours a week in his final year of law school handling phone- and email-based mediations through the DCBA program.

Building rapport with parties remotely is harder, Hicks says, but it starts with building trust with active listening. Hicks says about two-thirds of the mediations he’s handled have ended successfully.

“I enjoy explaining what the litigation process would look like if the parties were to decide to go to court instead of mediating,” Hicks says. “I enjoy helping them understand how reaching a mediated resolution is a fantastic way to eliminate the risks of litigation while also preserving the opportunity to repair a pre-existing relationship with the party on the other side.”

One benefit of online mediations is there typically is more time to prepare, Rodriguez and Hicks say.

Whether the case is a landlord-tenant or consumer-merchant dispute or child visitation negotiation, emotions can run high. As a mediator, “You want to try to bring down the heat a little bit,” Hicks says.

Adds Rodriguez: “For some parents, online mediation is more convenient because they don’t have to take an entire day off from work.”

“At the end of the day,” she says, “we’re helping people solve their problems.”

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