Resolving differences beyond the courtroom

Considering adding dispute resolution to your firm’s services? Cecily Zhu of the Accord Group shares her insights

Resolving differences beyond the courtroom

Dispute resolution and formal mediation are growing in popularity with clients, as parties look to resolve their issues amicably outside of the courtroom environment. Accordingly, many legal firms are looking to bring their expertise to the table and expand their services in this area. But where to begin? If you’ve never formally studied or practised in this area, it can be a daunting prospect.

Commercial mediator Cecily Zhu, managing director of the Accord Group, is keenly aware of how different dispute resolution can be from traditional lawyering.

“I think dispute resolution differs to other areas of law because of the human dynamic of disagreement,” says Zhu. “That is, two or more people have different perspectives on a situation, they cannot see eye to eye or understand the other point of view.”

During her time involved in the field, she’s come to believe that there are five key steps for lawyers looking to upskill for dispute resolution.

  1. Develop your creative problem solving

Fundamentally, Zhu explains, the focus of dispute resolution is problem solving. The mediator must find a path forward for both parties and an outcome that benefits all involved – and given the differing approaches people often have to problem solving, this can require creative, on-the-spot thinking. 

“This means that lawyers need to be strategic in advising clients about the best process to resolve a dispute as well as flexing their creativity muscle to craft potential solutions,” says Zhu.

  1. Understand the client’s needs and goals

“It is important for lawyers to have an intimate understanding of their clients’ needs and goals so they can appropriately weigh up the potential benefits and risks of different processes, and options for resolution,” says Zhu.

This involves going beyond a client’s legal needs or goals, she explains; it’s also about understanding the client’s underlying desires. This might include personal goals, business objectives, budget, relationships and other factors. All of these will inform the approach taken to dispute resolution. 

“This involves asking the right questions of the client to get the right information most efficiently,” says Zhu. “The resolution to a dispute settled outside of court will often be reached if the parties’ underlying needs can be met.”

  1. Communicate to minimise miscommunication

Zhu notes that disputes often arise from miscommunication of some kind and parties’ emotions getting involved. Professional and clear expression is important to avoid escalation of a matter. With this in mind, expanding into dispute resolution requires lawyers to understand the various dispute resolution processes available - from negotiation, to mediation, arbitration, or litigation.

“All processes will invariably involve communication which is probably the most important skill a lawyer should acquire,” says Zhu. “This involves communication with your own client, the other side and their representative.”  

  1. Attract new business with quick, flexible dispute resolution

While lawyers play a crucial role in providing assurance, guidance and closure for conflict resolution, a legal dispute can be a difficult and stressful experience for many clients. But by offering alternative dispute resolution options outside of court, lawyers can attract new business for clients that want to resolve their disputes quickly, with flexibility and in a way that meets their needs.

“Lawyers should be aware of the different kinds of client satisfaction – procedural (relating to the process), emotional (personal needs) and substantial (the actual outcome or solution),” explains Zhu. “By offering flexible and effective dispute resolution to clients, lawyers are able to achieve greater client satisfaction and grow their practice accordingly. Often clients won’t remember what you say or do, but they’ll always remember how you make them feel.”

  1. Consider formal training

Last, but certainly not least, Zhu suggests that lawyers looking to expand invest in formal training. Zhu points to the College of Law’s online mediation training for lawyers looking to add dispute resolution to their practice, including formal mediator training.

“As simple and clichéd as it sounds, the best part of my job is helping people – removing conflict from people’s businesses and lives so they can get on with their lives,” says Zhu. “There are a lot of thankless jobs out there, but mediation is an exception. It is a great feeling to receive a thank you phone call or email from a party after helping them to resolve a dispute.

“It’s so satisfying to introduce mediation skills to people, particularly those who have been trained to think a certain way, like lawyers, and see how those skills can really impact their personal and professional lives.”

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