Practitioners know that legal mediation is a delicate art, one built on attorney-client rapport and the subtle cues of body and voice as negotiations proceed. Doing it via Zoom – well, it’s not a perfect world.
But the School of Law’s annual Representation in Mediation Competition plunged its competitors into just that scenario. It was a move born of necessity, but adjunct faculty member Steven Sugarman ’85, who directs the school’s mediation clinic and oversees the competition, says it exercised skills that will be needed as lawyers and courts increasingly work with online platforms.
“What I miss in Zoom is the body language, the nuances in behavior and emotions, the sincerity or lack thereof that people are expressing,” says Sugarman, whose law practice is almost entirely in mediation. “But it’s not impossible. And even when COVID is over, there might be more videoconferences, because there is some efficiency there. If more mediations are going to be virtual anyway, then this was great practice for the students.”
In the competition, two-student teams compete to negotiate the win-win outcome that’s the ideal goal of all good negotiations. This year’s tournament comprised 22 teams, whose members took turns playing the role of the attorney and the client. Over a long Saturday in November, students worked on two situations – an international border dispute over water rights, and a child custody case that also had an international law component.
Supporting them required a cast of dozens – nearly 70 lawyers from the Western New York legal community to serve as mediators and judges; 11 student volunteers to help run each round; the law school’s information technology team, which set it all up and handled troubleshooting; and competition management from recent graduates Rachel Vicario ’20 and Darian Wilkom ’20, who as students had great success in international mediation competitions. Dawn Skopinski, associate director of the Advocacy Institute, provided major logistical support.
“Sometimes young lawyers say to me, if I had known earlier about the strength of collaborative negotiations to help my clients, I would have taken some courses in law school about it,” Sugarman says. “And when students learn about these skills, it’s a no-brainer. More and more courts are requiring that cases go to mediation as a first step, and this competition helps law students develop the skills they need so they know how to negotiate well.”
The competition had a repeat champion this year; the team of Melissa Whyman ’21 and April VanOrman ’21 won last year’s tournament as well.
It’s honestly the most fun I’ve had in law school,” Whyman says. “I really like the client-centered nature of mediation. The overall goal is that both parties can walk away with something they’re comfortable with, and I like that goal of the process.
That philosophy undergirded their negotiation in the morning round, the border dispute over water rights. “We knew that, regardless of the outcome, the parties were still going to be bordering countries,” Whyman says. “The main goal was saving that relationship – how can we set up an agreement where they can not only help each other with resources but maintain a relationship in the future?”
Her partner, VanOrman, says she and Whyman have been close friends from their first week of law school and discovered mediation around the same time. She says it helped their performance that they know each other so well.
School champions are invited to the ABA regional mediation competition, but Whyman and VanOrman have applied to take part in a virtual competition based in India that may take precedence.
The scores in the UB Law competition weren’t tallied until the next day, but another piece of good news intervened. As it happened, VanOrman got engaged on the night of the competition. It was, she says, “a big win all weekend.”