Innovative UF Law School Program Tries to Keep Attorneys Out of Court
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It may not seem so, with lawsuits being filed for such things as take-out coffee being too hot, but an important trend in the legal profession is to have attorneys spend less time in the courtroom.
Instead of lengthy and costly trials, more and more legal issues are now resolved through mediation and negotiation * especially in Florida.
That’s the word from University of Florida Levin College of Law Professor Don Peters, director of the law school’s Institute for Dispute Resolution (IDR) and Trustee Research Fellow.
Peters reports Florida leads the nation in court-connected mediations with an estimated 200,000 occurring every 12 months, and that across the country more than 90 percent of civil cases are settled through negotiation.
“Part of the reason for the high success rate,” Peters said, “is that, unlike most forms of dispute resolution, mediations are informal, confidential, and they can be quick and relatively inexpensive.”
The UF law school established its Institute for Dispute Resolution, the first of its kind at a law school in the state, as a result of Florida legislators enacting one of the first laws in the country giving judges broad authority to order mediation in all types of civil lawsuits.
The Institute’s mission is to “encourage and enhance teaching, research and service in alternative dispute resolution.” Through courses in mediation, negotiation, environmental dispute resolution, collective bargaining, and international litigation/arbitration, students are taught the skills, theoretical background and experiences needed to understand and practice dispute resolution.
“Of the approximately 130 law students we graduate yearly who have taken IDR courses, about 95 percent of them will practice in Florida,” Peters said. “We are preparing them for changes already taking place in how law is practiced here, and thus they’re far better prepared to resolve issues for their clients without having to go to trial.”
One of the more unique specialties taught in UF’s IDR classes is reconciliation. Professor Jonathan Cohen, a nationally known expert on dispute resolution, says the concept is as basic as the “golden rule” * that is, do unto others as you would have them do to you — until it comes to trying to make it fit in the legal system.
“If one person injures another in some way, an apology should be a common practice simply out of morality or at least good manners,” Cohen said. “Yet because of liability issues, people have become afraid to apologize.”
But Cohen, who earned his law degree and a doctorate in economics at Harvard University, says studies show in most cases, apologies would help settle disputes rather than escalate them.
“A new 2001 Florida law excludes from admission in court any expressions of sympathy after accidents,” Cohen said, noting that many states now are looking at drafting similar laws allowing people to apologize without creating a legal liability for those who do so. Peters said UF law students are given dispute resolution experience through clinic options allowing them to work at legal agencies around Gainesville where they can represent both adults and children as clients. Students participating in the mediation clinical course receive a qualifying classroom component approved by the Florida Supreme Court.
“We know our mix of classroom training, interaction with practicing attorneys and in-the-field assignments is working very well to prepare graduates for this new phase of a less-hostile approach to dispute resolution,” Peters said.
As examples of IDR’s expansion and acceptance, Peters cites:
- Juvenile Mediation Clinic Under direction of IDR Associate Director Alison Gerencser, UF law students perform mediation training with area youth and teach dispute resolution skills to incarcerated juveniles. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency honored the clinic in 2001 for its work.
- Alachua County Mediation Clinic All contested small-claims cases (lawsuits less than $5,000) in the county are handled through this program, providing students additional hands-on training. Disputes include those between neighbors, debtors /creditors, landlords/tenants, and minor construction cases.
- Florida Agricultural Mediation Service Farmers with disputes with the U.S. Department of Agriculture often find convenient and cost- effective relief through this statewide free service initiated by IDR and Gerencser in 1996. Agricultural credit problems, USDA decisions, wetland determinations, boundary disputes and similar issues are mediated.
- International Initiatives IDR provides dispute resolution help on an international basis. Representatives from countries including Jordan, Uganda, Poland, Haiti and Australia have learned dispute resolution on the Gainesville campus and from UF visiting law faculty.
“We recently hosted three representatives from Uganda,” Peters said. “They were a Justice of the High Court, the associate director of the Legal Aid Clinic, and the Director of the Law Development Centre who is a draftsperson for the Uganda Parliament.”
J. Joaquin Fraxedas, a 1975 graduate of UF’s law school and head of the Orlando-based Fraxedas Mediation Firm, agrees mediation is an essential skill for law graduates. Fraxedas is a former trial attorney who began his career with a firm specializing in medical malpractice.
“We were working with extremely difficult cases, including dealing with such issues as brain-damaged babies,” Fraxedas said. “I noticed after the state’s mediation statutes passed in the late 80s, a large number of cases — including $8-$10 million lawsuits * started being resolved through mediation.
“Florida is the model for the nation for a workable Alternative Dispute Resolution system,” he said. “Most of the larger states * Florida, Texas and California for example * are going to be involved in mediation constantly. There are simply too many cases for all of them to go to trial.
“Between the classes and clinics, the UF Institute is doing an excellent job preparing students for the increasing role of mediation,” said Fraxedas, an adjunct law professor. “This is a phase of the legal process that is win-win for all parties involved.”