Jeri Hunter, now in her third year of Creighton Law School, was at her home in Abilene, TX, on the morning of September 11, 2001, she says, when her husband called to tell her to turn on the television. While she did not know anyone who died or was injured on that day, as she watched the events unfold, she knew it would affect her family. Hunter's husband is an Air Force officer, and she was sure he would be involved in whatever followed.
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For Hunter, seeing children overseas dancing in the streets to celebrate the attack changed her life. "It was like a switch when I saw that," she says. The sight pushed her to go to law school, to show her own children that education is important, and to teach others "how to solve their differences without flying planes into buildings." That television image made her think. "I can do something," she says. "I want to make the world a better place."
Hunter came to law school seeking legal training in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) focusing on mediation. She sees mediation as essential to certain types of disputes, such as those in family law, and she hopes "if we use mediation now, then more people will accept it, and the more expected it will be down the road."
Suzanne Kaufman-McNamara, also a third-year law student at Creighton, sees mediation and ADR as useful tools in her ideal legal practice: helping families with legal issues when they are neither rich enough for personal attorneys, nor poor enough to receive free legal aid. "It's a group I really want to reach out to," she says.
Kaufman-McNamara will embark on her second career after graduation, having worked for 20 years with the Air Force as a Russian linguist. She is working toward her dispute resolution certificate. She took a mediation class this past fall, and, she says, "I'm sold on it."
After getting accepted to Creighton Law, Hunter says she was surprised that the school had "such limited classes in ADR." This limitation will soon change with the launch of the Werner Institute for Dispute Resolution at the school next year.
While too late for Hunter as a law student, she will be able to take advantage of the institute's seminars for practicing lawyers, which are planned to be a large part of the offerings. "I'd really like to be a part of it," says Hunter. ADR "should be part of every law school curriculum," she says.
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Especially in family law, Hunter says, "courtrooms just make it worse." Mediation is a "saner way to do business," she says. "There's nothing like being able to come up with your own solution."
There is even room for ADR in tax law, says Hunter, who is interning with the IRS right now. For example, if someone owes taxes and does not realize it, instead of dragging the person to court, the IRS often will negotiate with the person and drop some penalties or draw up a payment plan in exchange for a commitment to pay. Eventually, Hunter would like to help small business owners and individuals work out disputes through ADR.
To expand their ADR horizons further, both Hunter and Kaufman-McNamara participated last week in a conference on collaborative law, held at Creighton Law during the school's spring break. The two were selected by their mediation professor, Ron Volkmer, to fill slots at the conference offered to a few students by the planners.
Collaborative law is not the same thing as mediation. There is no mediator, just the representatives of each side and the parties themselves. Collaborative law can involve teams comprised of a lawyer, the client, and a mental-heath professional on each side. Then there is a financial advisor who gives advice to both parties.
In collaborative law, all involved agree to find a solution and agree not to take the case to court. If one side does so, then that person cannot use the same team in court. This provision is to maintain the motivation of all involved to reach a settlement and because information shared during the process cannot be used in court.
For both parties in a divorce, for example, knowing financial information and getting advice from both a lawyer and a mental-heath professional ensure "no power imbalance," says Hunter. This allows the sides to work out an agreement on equal footing.
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"Some disputes belong in court," Kaufman-McNamara says. If a person's rights are being violated (a sexual harassment case), then mediation may not be the best option. In divorce cases, however, especially if there are children involved, mediation is a good way to go. Mediation can "empower people on an individual level," says Kaufman-McNamara.