Published November 10, 2015
“Right from the start,” says Steven R. Sugarman, “when the summons says Smith v. Jones, it’s a war.”
Not that he’s anti-war. Sometimes taking a case to trial is the only way. But Sugarman, in league with a growing movement nationwide, argues that collaborative approaches to settling disputes can be highly effective – and that law students need to learn those skills.
ADR, encompassing a broad range of techniques now commonly referred to as appropriate dispute resolution, is becoming a larger part of skills training through the school’s Advocacy Institute, directed by SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Charles Patrick Ewing.
“Something like 5 percent of all cases go to trial,” says Sugarman, who directs the ADR component of the Advocacy Institute. “If you really want to help your client, you have to be able to look at other ways. Arguably, students will be using their non-trial skills much more than they will their trial skills.”
One growing component at the Advocacy Institute is the University at Buffalo School of Law’s increasing presence in national ADR competitions. The American Bar Association runs a Representation in Mediation Competition, in which the winners of regional competitions advance to a final round held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the ABA’s dispute resolution section. SUNY Buffalo’s team advanced to the regional finals of last year’s competition.
In the ABA competition, the school was represented again this year by the winners of an intramural competition, which took place on Nov. 14 at the Law School. CJ Cook ’17 and Joseph Lavoie ’17 took top place; and Erica Pandolfo ’16 and Andrew DeMasters ’16, came in a close second.
Forty students registered for the competition competing in two-person teams, with one student playing the role of lawyer and one the client. Area attorneys with mediation training served as volunteer judges, and U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny delivered opening remarks. (The court now mandates mediation for all cases on its docket.) This year’s case is an emotionally charged one, in which siblings are squabbling over the proper use of family land that they have inherited.
Sugarman acts as coach for the two Law School teams that will go to the national competition, and the students earn course credit for the voluminous work involved.
The school is also sent a team to the New York State Bar Association’s new arbitration competition, co-sponsored by the American Arbitration Association. The team was coached by Lisa A. Bauer, the Law School’s director of externships. The competition, held Nov. 13-14 in New York City, consisted of a full arbitration hearing governed by the Large Complex Commercial Rules of the AAA.
These competition experiences give students the opportunity to test the skills they learn in the Law School’s formal mediation courses. Sugarman, whose practice consists almost entirely of mediation, is part of a small group of adjunct professors whose teaching forms the core of the ADR program. In addition to his fall-semester course on Mediation Theory and Practice, he teaches a Mediation Clinic in the spring. In the clinic, students progress from simulations and videotaped role-playing exercises to serving as volunteer mediators for small-claims cases in Amherst and Lancaster town courts. If the mediation fails to reach a resolution, Sugarman says, the students stick around to watch as the case goes through trial.
A regular speaker series on ADR topics is another goal, in conjunction with the newly formed student ADR Association. The series’ first speaker, New York City mediator Simeon Baum, appeared at the Law School on Sept. 28.
Other ideas, including hopes for new courses and for serving the community through mediation, are in the works.
“More and more, legal advocacy is not trial advocacy,” Sugarman says. “There’s a great need for law students to develop skills beyond trial skills. This is really looking at the lawyer as a problem solver.”