OU College of Law and the Early Settlement Program
By Cheryl B. Wattley
Almost six years ago, the University of Oklahoma College of Law (OU Law) launched its collaboration with the Early Settlement program to offer mediation training to our students. OU Law’s emphasis on Native American peoples made this partnership particularly poignant. The traditional indigenous practices of peacemaking circles and the creation of a safe, nonjudgmental environment for addressing conflict are reflected in a mediation approach. Our mediation program is the perfect blend of today’s call for more skill training for law students with an exposure to cross-cultural practices of dispute resolution.
Through this program, we not only introduce our students to the mediation process, but we also train them to be integral actors in assisting litigants to achieve resolution. We take the law student out of the traditional setting and remove them from the classroom and the adversarial approach to addressing disputes. We strip them of the confrontational mindset that underlies much of the traditional legal education reflected in case studies and one party “winning.”
Alongside community participants, working with the Early Settlement director, Sue Tate, and the Central Program director, Phil Johnson, our students receive the ESP 20-hour basic training. Conducted at OU Law, this training occurs prior to the commencement of the semester courses. This schedule demands that students be committed to participating in the program. It is not simply another course. Engaging in simulation exercises, our students begin the transition from being advocates — people who are trained to persuasively advance one position — to becoming the impartial facilitators working on behalf of all of the participants.
During our five years, almost 100 students have attended this training and then proceeded to mediate civil cases in Cleveland County. The students mediate between three and four cases a week during the 14-week academic semester. Almost 60 percent of the cases handled by OU Law students reach an agreement. Almost half of our student mediators have continued their training and completed the family mediation program. Those students co-mediate or mediate family cases. The students’ proficiency has been recognized by their receipt of the Oklahoma Supreme Court certification under the Early Settlement Mediation program operated by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
We are certainly proud that our students are now certified volunteer mediators, and that through the mediations that they conduct, civil and family court dockets are being positively impacted. But it is the change in the students themselves that attests to the success and value of this program.
One of the early participants wrote in her required weekly journal that law school had felt uncomfortable for her because she was uneasy with the antagonistic and aggressive argumentative styles that seemed to be so inherent in traditional adversarial proceedings. Mediation had shown her that she had a place, a role in helping people that could perhaps be even more effective and powerful. Another student wrote that she found herself listening to roommate disputes and arguments, engaging them in conversations that brought reconciliation rather than irritation. Many students describe this experience as “life-changing.” They have developed a new lens with which to look at conflict and active listening skills with which to hear others.
Uniformly, the students experience a sense that they have helped people, that they made a difference. Both are reminders of their motivation to become lawyers in the first place. It is that affirmation that has made this collaboration so worthwhile for these students and the communities that they will serve in the future as lawyers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl Wattley is director of Experiential Education at the UNT Dallas College of Law, formerly the director of clinical education at OU Law, where she served on the faculty from 2007 to 2013. She graduated cum laude from Smith College and received her J.D. from Boston University College of Law.