Mediation @ McGill offers a kinder, gentler way to resolve conflicts

Posted on Monday, March 18, 2013

By Dan Lawlor

Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes. In law school we learn much about the so-called “adversarial method” of solving our disputes. In fact, it is one of the pillars of the judicial system, a fundamental aspect of the profession. The verdict is often one-sided – the adversarial nature of the system presupposes a winner, of sorts. In recent years it has become more and more apparent that litigation is not always, or even usually, the best solution to our problems. Legal battles are costly in terms of both money and time. Lawyers, judges, professors and students all realize this.

Mediation is one alternative to the adversarial system. With the aid of a mediator, the parties to a conflict have more say over both the process and the outcome than in the traditional courtroom setting. The result is that individuals often leave the mediation table with relationships intact, greater understanding of each others’ viewpoint, and feeling more personally empowered to handle further conflict. Better still, mediations can provide resolutions quickly and at minimal cost to the parties.

At McGill’s Faculty of Law, a student group – Mediation @ McGill – is trying to raise awareness of the benefits of mediation and conflict management while simultaneously providing a service to the community.

When I joined the club last fall, I knew little of mediation as a practice other than through incidental contact and descriptions in procedure classes. After speaking with one of the directors, Jonathan Elston, and hearing about the group’s efforts, I wanted to help.

Jonathan and his co-director, Léa Préfontaine, were leading a Community Mediation Initiative that stemmed from a mediation course offered through the Faculty of Law in 2011. Justice Louise Otis, a world-renowned mediator and former judge at the Quebec Court of Appeal, was – and continues to be – the faculty advisor for the project. Second- and fourth-year law students, respectively, Jonathan and Léa had been doing some fantastic work in the community.

The group formed partnerships with Déclic and Centre Marie-Médiatrice, two Montreal organizations that help reintegrate vulnerable students back into high school programs. These young adults often face many obstacles in their educational and social integration, including conflicts of all sorts. Together with other McGill law graduates and current students, the initiative offered them mediation services, consultations, and conflict management workshops. It was also clear that further interesting developments were on the way.

When I joined, Mediation @ McGill was already in the works. The project name comes from the group’s desire to start an on-campus service for students dedicated to conflict resolution and peer-to-peer mediation. In the fall we completed a needs assessment as to the desirability of mediations for the student population. We discussed with other higher-education institutions as well as other groups on campus, and concluded that the need was legitimate. The process then turned to focus on what sorts of services we could offer, to whom, and when. Offering bona fide mediations, in addition to awareness-raising events and training seminars all seemed like feasible ways to impact the McGill community in a positive way.

The resulting arrangement is mutually beneficial to both volunteers with the project and the students to whom we extend our services. Students routinely face many interpersonal challenges for which mediation or conflict management workshops may provide solutions. Mediation and conflict coaching can resolve roommate disputes, help manage group work, and even maintain friendships. The services are confidential and rendered by trained and neutral McGill students.

As a personal example, I recently volunteered to help demonstrate the process of conflict coaching – a one-on-one technique that helps individuals deal with a particular dispute. The session was meant as a training seminar for our volunteers, but I found that my outlook on my not-so-hypothetical “conflict” with my roommates had drastically improved afterwards.

The advantages to volunteers who dedicate their time to the project include the practical experience of working through mediations with actual clients. They develop skills that they will be able to use as lawyers: communication, active listening, fact finding, identifying a person’s interests and facilitating discussions with the other party. They similarly benefit from hands-on training events, such as the conflict-coaching seminar, and visiting speakers on the topic of dispute resolution.

The framework of a campus organization offers guidance to law students with interests in this area, and also allows us to ensure and monitor the quality of service. It is also within the realm of possibility that law students may eventually be able to earn credit for work with our group, as is the case with various legal clinics in Montreal. While any such arrangement is a long way off, it is certainly a hope for those of us with a passion for mediation.

It is with pride and satisfaction that we are able to inaugurate the services of Mediation @ McGill today from 5-7 at our launch event in the basement lounge of Thomson House, at 3650 McTavish. We hope that our efforts will provide a lasting good to the students of McGill, both as a service to the community and as a training endeavor for interested law students.

Dan Lawlor is a third-year law student at McGill, with interests in legal philosophy, policy and litigation. He is the co-director of outreach of Mediation @ McGill.

The Mediation @ McGill launch event is being held today from 5-7 p.m. in the basement lounge of Thomson House, at 3650 McTavish. Refreshments will be provided. The Honourable Justice Louise Otis, former judge at the Quebec Court of Appeal and Senior Boulton Fellow at McGill Faculty of Law, is a world-renowned mediation expert. She will speak briefly about the project.

For more information about Mediation @ McGill and the services it provides, go here.

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