Published February 10, 2020
The legal mediation skills of two UB law students are being put to an international test this week as they represent the School of Law at a major competition in Paris.
The International Chamber of Commerce’s 15th annual Commercial Mediation Competition involves students from 66 universities worldwide. During the weeklong event, which began Feb. 6, teams compete in mock mediation sessions judged by professional mediators.
The issues third-year students Rachel Vicario and Darian Wilkom are facing in Paris are commercial disputes, said UB law alum Steven Sugarman, director of the law school’s Advocacy Institute’s ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) Program and the Mediation Clinic, and a partner with Pusatier Sherman Abbott & Sugarman LLP. He is coaching the UB Law team with his spouse, fellow law alum Judith Gerber, chief attorney of the Attorneys for Children Unit of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.
Sugarman explained that lawyers and law students may get the impression that mediation is more for interpersonal disputes, such as family law, matrimonial and estate matters. “It’s definitely used for those things very well, but in business cases and commercial matters it’s being used domestically and internationally more and more to avoid that long journey through the courts,” he said.
“It’s about the lawyer as problem-solver, an interest-based negotiation rather than a positional base. The attorney advocate is looking at the underlying needs and concerns of each party, trying to dissect those and seeing if they can come up with a settlement that is better and more certain for their client than the probable litigated result,” he said.
“Students are taught the old proverb that if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every legal problem looks like a nail,” Sugarman noted. “These are different skills than trial skills: effective communication, mutual understanding and empathy, creativity, and trying to convert the adversarial advocate across the table into a collaborative problem-solver, even in the face of high emotions. These skills are transferable to any subject area of the law.”
Vicario and Wilkom, who have long worked as a team, are veterans of several mediation competitions, reaching the quarterfinals of a similar international mediation competition in Vienna last year.
The Paris competition problems involve eight separate cases, Vicario told UBNow before leaving for Paris, and “the legal doctrines that apply are very broad. You get less into the nitty-gritty of the law and more into what’s going on and why are we doing this.”
“At the end of the day, mediation is mediation,” she said. “Whether it’s a corporation or a divorcing couple, people want to be heard and taken seriously. And the emotions are similar — people invest themselves in their companies and have an emotional attachment to their work.”
Wilkom said that beyond the intense experience of the competition itself, such events open up a world of contacts and ideas. “In Vienna, we met so many different people and we made great connections — other students, future professionals, professionals who are already established mediators and attorneys,” she said. “I’m very excited to make more of those connections.”
Both students are grateful for the financial support they received from area attorneys and longtime friends Lindy Korn and UB law alum Josephine Greco, which made their trip possible. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” Vicario said. “Their contribution was so unbelievably generous.”
“Mediation has been a part of my practice for 30 years,” said Korn, who was one of the originators of the Alternative Dispute Resolution program in Western New York’s federal courts and teaches a bridge course at the law school on sexual harassment mediation.
“Dispute research is critical to a successful career as a lawyer and probably for the courts as well. Even during litigation, it’s a different way of talking and thinking. I want to make sure that the next generation of lawyers have this skill in whatever way they can develop it,” she said.
“The fact that I could be part of this competition in any way gives me great pleasure.”
Greco, a partner with Greco Trapp PLLC in Buffalo, is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council (DAC). She said her support for the UB Law team comes on the heels of a presentation to the DAC about advancements in the school’s Advocacy Institute and her firm’s continued support of the law school’s New York City Program on Finance and Law.
“We believe that a program like the ADR program, as well as opportunities for students to have practical experience — those are essential for our students,” Greco said. “Mediation is so important in our practice, especially in federal court and our employment relations practice, and it’s far more prevalent now than when I was in law school.
“Participating in this kind of training is a skill that will enhance a law student’s educational experience.”