It may not seem so, based on recent national media coverage, 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, according to UFLaw Professor Don Peters (right), director of the college’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 and confidential, and can be quick and relatively inexpensive.”
UFLaw 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.
Through IDR 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.
Peters said UFLaw 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.
“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.”
As examples of IDR’s expansion and acceptance, Peters cites:
Juvenile Mediation Clinic
Under direction of IDR Associate Director Alison Gerencser (front left in page 39 photo), 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 Clinic
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.
IDR provides dispute resolution help on an international basis. Representatives from countries including Jordan, Uganda, Poland, Haiti and Australia learn 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 (JD 75), 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.”
IDR is endowed through a $100,000 contribution from Upchurch Watson White & Max Mediation Group, a nationally recognized mediation specialty firm with offices in Daytona Beach, Maitland, Miami and Tallahassee. The perpetual endowment supports teaching and research, student grants, conflict management programs and the annual “Meet the Masters” symposium. Principals of the firm include Lawrence M. Watson Jr. (JD 69), former Circuit Judge John J. Upchurch IV (JD 68), Terrence M. White (JD 79) and Rodney A. Max (BA 70), current president of the American College of Civil Trial Mediators. Justice Ben Overton (JD 52) joined the firm after stepping down from the Florida Supreme Court in 1999.