Are we nearly there yet? Reflections on the HDR journey

As we move towards the middle of this my fourth year of PhD candidature, my thesis submission date is drawing rapidly nigh and the anxiety level is elevated a notch,  I thought it might be useful to reflect on the journey thus far and to share with you some of the highlights and low points of the journey although, thankfully, of the latter there is little to report.

child drawing

Image: ‘Child Drawing’ by The Naked Ape, Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think it is fair to say that the journey may never have commenced at all, had it not been for the blindingly obvious conclusion after thirty years of legal practice as a commercial litigator, that the solutions being offered to litigants by the traditional justice system were somewhat less than ideal.  Clients were complaining that the court could not offer the relief they were seeking, the costs of “winning” were prohibitively high and most of the cases in which I was instructed were resolved on some basis well before they reached a hearing.  Try as I might, I could never quite be convinced of the claim that the public interest in having the courts “…explicate and give force to the values embodied in authoritative texts…” (1) or otherwise declare the law for the benefit of the public good, had any real relevance to some of the mundane and routine cases in which I was involved.  In fact, of all of the hundreds of cases in which I acted throughout my career as a lawyer, only two found their way into the law reports.

And so it was that, armed with the vision of a broader view of justice and a transcript of my Masters in Dispute Resolution, I arrived at the academy with a request to be admitted to the RHD program.  It is worth noting at this juncture that the welcoming and supportive culture of the academic community generally and my academic supervisors especially, has been nothing short of outstanding and I believe it is a tribute to their encouragement and support that I have persevered this far.

I am happy to say that my first year of candidature was both vigorous and productive.  Together with my colleague Armin Alimardani I represented the Faculty of Law at UNSW in the Three Minute Thesis competition where we both performed without distinction but were grateful for the experience.  The formulation of an appropriate research question, the preparation of a proposal and writing of a literature review  occupied most of the year and did much to clear my thoughts about the path that lay ahead.  I was delighted to discover that others had trodden the path I sought to travel and there was a rich and abundant supply of research evidence in the general dispute resolution field.  The filtering of this material was as fascinating as it was challenging and the effort was well rewarded because it placed me in an excellent position to approach the confirmation examination with confidence and to receive and consider the reviewers’ comments constructively.  Other features of the year included attendance at a compulsory course on research methodology and the acceptance for publication of the first of three articles which have appeared in the Australasian Alternative Dispute Resolution Journal.

The clear highlight of 2015 was the opportunity of presenting a paper at the 4th ADRN Roundtable at UNSW in September, an event which I shall long remember because it was there that I was introduced to the members of this research network, a group of like-minded thinkers, researchers and teachers who share my passion for a broader framework of justice.  I have attended each of our roundtables since and hope to do so again this year. It is, I think, an important and integral part of the aspiring academic’s learning experience to have the opportunity to present his or her research at as many roundtables and conferences as possible.  It provides an opportunity for practice at presenting, an opportunity to review the work of others and to receive comments and review of one’s own work in a supportive and non-threatening environment.    It also encourages collaboration and the formulation of collaborative networks such as the ADRRN.  For the RHD candidate, it also provides a much needed point of human contact with other researchers.  The road to a PhD can be a lonely journey at times and it is a good thing to meet with others professionally and socially to exchange thoughts and ideas about what is happening in the research discipline.  For me, the ADRRN roundtable is an end-of-year reward for diligence throughout the past year.

The research question with which I am concerned is how lawyers are engaging with court-connected mediation.  In her optimistically titled work, The New Lawyer: How settlement is transforming the practice of law (2) Julie Macfarlane explores the reasons why lawyers have traditionally acted in an adversarial manner in response to conflict and dispute.  She says that it is a cultural issue and that we (lawyers) behave as we do because of our “legal professional culture.”  She posits the existence of three core elements of legal professional culture which guide our thinking and steer us towards adversarial competition whenever a dispute arises.  Those elements are, firstly, the default to a rights based system of justice, secondly a belief in justice as process and thirdly a belief in the superiority of the lawyer as expert.  Using a data collection instrument designed to capture the presence of those elements in research respondents and with ethics approval sought and obtained, I set off in the Spring of 2016 to drive to various country centres throughout New South Wales to speak to lawyers about their views on court-connected mediation.  I spoke with each respondent for an hour, recorded the interviews with their permission on my smartphone and transcribed the interviews later.  (For anyone who may be contemplating this as a strategy for the future, be warned: the transcription time to interview time is 6:1 so for every hour of interview you can expect to spend six hours transcribing).

The verdict is in.  The qualitative data has been analysed and the interviews studied.  In many respects the results are not surprising.   They align with other research done in other places and at other times.  The good news is that, even over the past five years or so, we lawyers have made some progress in embracing court-connected mediation although at times with a begrudging acceptance and a resignation that it is here to stay and we may as well get used to it.  Particular themes emerged and are dealt with in my thesis.  They include, notably, the much vexed issue of disputant participation and the issue of confidentiality.  Understanding of how lawyers grapple with these issues is of particular interest to me because they go a long way to explaining what Olivia Rundle calls “the dilemma of court-connected mediation.”  Other themes which emerged from the data were the inclusion in mediation narrative of non-legal material and the question of whether, in court-connected mediation, mediators should be facilitative or directive.  A better understanding of these issues will give lawyers and their clients a better understanding of mediation and a more satisfying mediation experience.

So, as I turn into the straight for the final run home to what I hope will be a successful conclusion, I am sometimes reminded of family holidays and long car journeys and colouring books when my children would ask: “Are we nearly there yet?” and their mother would patiently reply: “Nearly there.  Just a little while to go. Just keep drawing in your book.  I’m sure you can make it a little better.” 


(1) O. Fiss Against Settlement 93 Yale LJ 1073 1983-1984 at p 1085

(2) J. Macfarlane The New Lawyer: How settlement is transforming the practice of law (Vancouver UBC Press 2008)

 

 

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Collaborative Practice – unique skillset or traditional lawyering?

 

Student Guest Post by Ben Zocco

 

This post is the first in a series of posts on this blog written by students studying Non-Adversarial Justice at the Faculty of Law at Monash University. Students were invited to write blog posts explaining various complex areas of law relating to dispute resolution to ordinary readers. The very best posts are published here.

 

 

The advent of collaborative practice as a means of resolving family law disputes has provided couples with a means of completing a divorce or separation in a conciliatory and cost effective manner. With more than 200 practitioners currently registered with the Law Institute of Victoria’s Collaborative Law Section, a significant number of lawyers have undergone training that allows them to practice collaboratively.

 

The Law Council of Australia’s Basic Training Requirements

In response to its increasing popularity of collaborative practice, the Law Council of Australia has published the Australian Collaborative Practice Guidelines for Lawyers. This document encompasses a series of “Basic Training” requirements in order to be recognised as being collaboratively trained. This set of overarching training requirements forms a best practice guide for ensuring practitioners engaging in collaborative law are appropriately prepared for acting in this unique practice area.

army-recruit-is-in-training-at-the-army-physical-training-school-brisbane-1942Image: Courtesy State Library of Queensland

 

The Basic Training requirements provide for the teaching of a range of skills that are unique to the practice of collaborative law. This is particularly so with the requirement that practitioners are provided with relevant training of the “collaborative model”.

 

What is Collaborative Practice?

Collaborative practice, as the name suggests, is a non-adversarial process used to resolve disputes. It requires the parties and their legal representatives to enter into a formal contract that puts the focus of the process settling a matter rather than resorting to litigation. Terms in the agreement generally refer to a commitment for each party to engage in the collaborative process in good faith and to share all available relevant information pertaining to the dispute with the other party. If the dispute is not resolved and parties seek to formally commence legal proceedings, the lawyers engaged in the collaborative process are contractually required to cease representing their clients. This requires the parties to engage new lawyers, generally at a significant cost, and serves as a major incentive to the parties to find common ground and work collaboratively to resolve their dispute.

Collaborative practice is conducted in the presence of each party and their legal adviser in what is described as a “four way meeting”. Several four way meetings take place over the course of a number of months, with each run according to agenda devised by the parties in consultation with their lawyers prior to the meeting. The conclusion of the four way meetings seeks to culminate in the drafting and execution of an agreement that resolves the dispute in a manner that is mutually acceptable to both parties.

 

The Unique Nature of Collaborative Practice

The collaborative model, as describe above, is an entirely unique approach to the resolution of disputes. While traditional mediation is also seen as an alternative to litigating matters, it differs from collaborative practice in many respects. The absence of a mediator in collaborative practice requires the legal representatives to facilitate the discussion rather than simply representing their client. Additionally, the capabilities necessary to operate collaboratively in the absence of a court-mandated framework for discovery and good faith negotiation is at odds with that of conventional alternative dispute resolution approaches. Accordingly, this skillset is unique to collaborative law practitioners.

The skills required of collaborative practitioners are also unique insofar as the model makes use of independent experts to facilitate the settlement of disputes. It is standard practice in a matter being resolved collaboratively to utilise the expertise of third party professionals, especially those who are trained as child specialists or financial advisors. These experts assist the parties and the lawyers in exploring interests (rather than positions) and potential options to satisfy the needs of the parties. Additionally, their experience assists the couple in being able to understand the impact of their separation on their children, as well as its effect on the financial position of each person once the dispute has finalised.

While the interaction of legal practitioners and independent experts is extremely common, the manner in which they work together in a collaborative setting compared with that of general legal practice is significantly different. In many jurisdictions, the relationship between independent expert is governed by a formal practice note, issued by the court. Lawyers typically engage independent experts by way of a formal retainer, setting out the advice necessary for the purposes of the matter. The expert will then write a formal report, setting out their findings. In many cases, an expert will be required to “hot tub” with an expert appointed by the opposing party in order to reach consensus conclusions and to narrow the issues in dispute. Additionally, experts retained in a litigation matter are subject to rigorous cross examination from other parties, adding an adversarial flavour to their contribution made for the purposes of resolving the matter.

In contrast, a collaborative approach requires each party to jointly appoint an expert, often by way of a shared recommendation by the practitioners representing them. The expert will work with each party in the room together and will rarely engage in separate discussions with parties individually. Rather than the lawyers approaching the assistance of an expert’s contribution as potentially suspect or misconstrued as may be the case in litigated disputes, they are able to respect and value their support in a truly collaborative fashion. Accordingly, the interdisciplinary approach to collaborative practice means a collaborative practitioner is required to have a unique skillset when involving experts in a matter being managed collaboratively.

 

Negotiation for All, Not Just the Collaborative

While there are many aspects of the “Basic Training” requirements that are unique to collaborative practitioners, it is clear that are not all exclusively within the domain of collaborative law.

A crucial example of this is the necessity that collaborative practitioners must be aware of and trained in negotiation theory; specifically, that of the differences between interest and positional-based bargaining.

A key tool in the arsenal of a collaborative practitioner is assisting the parties to consider the distinction between positions and interests. Unlike traditional positional bargaining, focusing on interests allows the parties to concentrate on the key issues that require resolution, rather than the parties becoming distracted on minor matters, falling into positional impasses or creating acrimony in the process. This prioritisation of interests, rather than positions, also assists the parties in being able to develop creative solutions that are mutually amenable, rather than being focused on finding a middle ground between two respective positions, neither of which may be the best holistic outcome.

But similar strategies are used in some forms of mediation generally, rather than solely within a collaborative setting. Facilitative mediation, for instance, also focuses on steering the parties toward concentrating on positions rather than interests. This occurs in a traditional mediation setting, involving the parties, their legal representatives and a trained mediator. Additionally, several popular negotiation courses offered by institutions such as MIT and Harvard University train legal practitioners and business executives to be aware of the distinction when being involved in a negotiation.

Accordingly, negotiation theory should not be considered solely a skill that is relevant to collaborative practitioners, but to the legal profession generally. Despite the differences in approach to alternative dispute resolution, ensuring that the legal profession is adequately trained to delineate between a client’s needs and wants should be recognised in considering the skills that are desirable for all practitioners to hold.

It is clear that collaborative practitioners are required to be appropriately trained in their interaction with fellow lawyers in a collaborative setting, the collaborative model in general and the manner in which the interdisciplinary focus of the practice differs from the general use of experts in a dispute. These are skillsets that, currently, are largely unique and confined to the practice of collaborative law. It is essential for the continued success of collaborative practice within Australia for the distinction between these attributes to other forms of alternative dispute resolution to be clear.

However, it can also be said that collaborative law requires skills that are not solely used within its discipline. A knowledge of negotiation theory is highly desirable for legal practitioners to possess for everyday dispute resolution, not just that involving collaborative practice. To that extent, it is clear that the collaborative practice “Basic Training” requirements of the Law Council of Australia encompass training that is both unique to collaborative practitioners and also relevant to the legal profession generally.

 

Mr Ben Zocco has recently completed Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degrees from Monash University and will be commencing as a graduate lawyer with a national law firm in 2017. He has spent the later years of his legal education studying various forms of alternative dispute resolution and looks forward to the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice as a lawyer.