By Marie Sarantakis • March 29, 2015•Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest
Law school molds us to be competitive. The courtroom encourages us to be adversarial. As law students, we sometimes forget that there is any other modus operandi other than being tough and unyielding. Ironically, often the opposite approach leads to satisfactory and meaningful outcomes for attorneys and clients alike.
During my second year as a student at The John Marshall Law School, I began mediating small claims and custody cases in courthouses throughout the Chicago suburbs for the Center of Conflict Resolution. It is a volunteer position and a majority of the time I am dealing with pro se litigants. They are often angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed. The legal battle is no longer about the issue at hand, but rather the disputant has become preoccupied with winning.
When I take parties into the mediation room, I first explain the process, then ask them to briefly tell their side of the story and what they hope to achieve. All the while I reframe their issue and acknowledge their emotions. Rather than then jumping into the problem, I prefer to delve into a discussion about the parties’ relationship (or if one did not formerly exist, their communication). So often, during that stage the parties see what went wrong in a different light. They let their guard down, even if for just a moment.
This is starkly different than the courtroom. There the narrative and the parties’ emotions, needs, and interests get lost. At that stage, there is only time to address the problem and how the law is to be applied accordingly. The adversarial legal system is a very valuable tool in many cases, and always will be, but sometimes a little communication and understanding can go a very long way. Rather than being enemies at the opposite ends of a spectrum, the parties become participants in a story. They are real people with feelings, who are sometimes imperfect and just trying to figure out a way to resolve an unfortunate circumstance. Rather than standing alone, in mediation, these actors often find they are #strongertogether.
This lesson is not isolated to cases of mediation, but in the courtroom as well. While attorneys may be working on opposite sides, they can accomplish more for their respective clients by being courteous, amicable, and professional in their dealings. Even though we are lawyers by trade, we are not to be dividers, but resolvers. Controversies will always be there; it is our task to ease our clients’ burden. It serves the public interest to be able to approach problems in such a way that we can respectfully understand and acknowledge our clients problems and zealously represent their interests, all while working together to craft long-term solution. Being a good attorney, means cultivating relationships, our own and others. Although our work can be divisive and lonely, we can always find a way to be stronger together.