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Let's talk it over

|Written By Robert Todd
Let's talk it over
Osgoode students Vanessa Decker, Nick Van Duyvenbode, and Christine Dankowych recently doing mediation training at Oakdale Park Middle School in Toronto. Photo: Robert Todd

Here’s a proposition for you, law students: You know those few hours of spare time you have each week, between lectures, studying, writing papers, and all the other tasks that are slowly pushing you over the edge? Rather than spending it catching up on your favourite TV show, getting some exercise, or enjoying a drink with friends, how would you like to organize a campaign to create an exciting new academic program for your school — one that you won’t even get the chance to take part in? You’ll probably pass, but luckily for you there are people like Radhika Lakhani.

The 2007 Osgoode Hall Law School grad was the driving force behind the school’s new Mediation Intensive Clinical Program, which is allowing law students to better develop mediation skills while helping divert conflicts away from the courts in Toronto’s rough-and-tumble Jane-Finch community. Lakhani was backed by peers Andrew Magnus, Julia Tomson, and Vera Toppings, as they combined to form Osgoode’s ADR Project in 2006. Their efforts led to the establishment of the innovative program in September 2009, years after the group had moved on to other things.

Lakhani keyed in on a growing desire among students to learn more about alternative dispute resolution and mediation, which is now mandatory under Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure. She had gained knowledge of the area while completing a certificate in it before arriving at Osgoode, and her peers were keen to draw on her expertise. They peppered her with questions on things like how to become a mediator or ways to integrate mediation into a legal practice. “I sensed a void in the law school, with respect to a program that focused on the practical side of mediation, as opposed to the theoretical, which Osgoode had covered well up until that date,” recalls Lakhani. “I realized there was really something here that we could do and create.”

That prompted her to draw on the skills and energy of the group of students that made up The ADR Project. They started their push by organizing a conference that brought together a range of speakers offering tips on practical issues surrounding ADR and legal practice. That successful event motivated the students to press for the creation of Osgoode’s own mediation clinic. They looked at similar clinics at other law schools, such as the University of Windsor’s Mediation Services, as inspiration, and got the go-ahead from then-dean Patrick Monahan’s office to undertake a three-step process to test their idea. The conference served as the first phase. That was followed by the establishment of satellite clinics, which demonstrated that law students could mediate disputes, as would be required should a full-blown clinic be created. The final stage saw members of The ADR Project, all third-year students at the time, teaching mediation skills to their summering first- and second-year law-school peers in boardrooms at downtown Toronto law firms, which sponsored the weekend-long events.

After seeing all of this come together, Lakhani says Monahan got on board and fully backed the creation of an Osgoode mediation clinic. He pursued grants to help get the initiative off the ground, and the Law Foundation of Ontario eventually agreed to help fund the project. By this time, members of The ADR Project were in the midst of their articles, so the grant money was used to fund a director to oversee the nine-credit, full-year clinical program. A panel chose Osgoode LLM grad Leanne Shafir, who took the reins as program director in July 2009 after spending over a decade practising family law and mediation with the Ministry of Attorney General in British Columbia and Toronto firm Cooper Kleinman.

“I really feel there was a force behind this that was pushing us; this project was just meant to be born,” says Lakhani when asked what it was like to spearhead such a massive effort while undertaking the equally daunting task of completing her law school studies. “We didn’t really think too much about it — we just did it. We were so busy with it. We were meeting twice a week. I think I was getting 30 to 40 e-mails a day for a solid few years. I think I spent more time on the project than I did on my LLB for the last half. It was just exhilarating to be part of something that we all had a sense was going to turn into something bigger than we ever imagined.”

Shafir began her time leading the initiative by creating an advisory committee to inform the design of the mediation centre. She also began to put her own mark on the program through development of the curriculum, which was based on existing Osgoode Hall mediation courses and those at other law faculties.

The next step in the program’s creation was the development of a conflict-management system, which students helped put together when classes commenced in September 2009. They did that by liaising with Jane-Finch community organizations to discover the types of conflicts facing people in the area, how they were being managed, and ways the Osgoode program could help the groups create “a culture of conflict fluency,” says Shafir.

She also wanted to find a way for the Osgoode students to get some hands-on experience by going into the community to use the theories they learned in lectures. The hands-on aspect is now applied to several components of the program. Currently, Osgoode mediation students take their newfound knowledge into four Jane-Finch area schools — three middle schools and one high school. The principal of each school has hand-picked a group of 20 to 25 students that the Osgoode students meet with each week to teach conflict-resolution skills. “As a law student, they better understand and can apply the skills,” explains Shafir. “They learn about conflict in theory, and they read academic literature, then they have to go and teach the skills to students, creating a refinement of the learning process.” Of course, mediation is largely based on facilitation and working with different groups and understanding other cultures. All of that is also reinforced through the in-school teaching sessions.

The sessions are tweaked for the needs of each school. Some are using the opportunity to train peer mediators, while others are looking for straightforward conflict-management and anti-bullying content. Meanwhile, Osgoode is currently working with the Toronto District School Board to create a referral system that would see the clinic mediate disputes to avoid suspensions. The program has also developed relationships with community organizations, such as local Early Years Centres and several others serving families and youths in the Jane-Finch community. Shafir views all of these offerings as an opportunity not only to serve the community, but to expand the clinic’s presence by raising awareness of its existence and demonstrating that it can be a more viable option than the courts.

At the clinic, parties to a dispute can receive assistance from students Shafir assigns to handle the intake. Individual students meet separately with each party to the dispute, and when a formalized mediation session takes place, Shafir or another mediator supervises the students.

While many other staff, students, and faculty at Osgoode have made significant contributions to the clinical mediation throughout its development and implementation, Shafir has not lost sight of the fact that none of it would have happened if not for Lakhani and her peers in The ADR Project. “One of the reasons this has been so novel is that it was a program that got off the ground due to the energy and efforts and desire of a group of students. When you talk about mediation being interest-based, this is a program that was really created based on the interests of students, and then the development of the need for alternative dispute resolution in our justice system, and as a skill set for students entering the practice of law,” she says. “Students can make things happen. They’re so bright and they’re really energetic, and they’re an amazing catalyst.”

That energy appears to have translated into overwhelming demand for Osgoode’s clinical mediation program. Twelve students were admitted to the program for the 2010-11 school year, although about 35 applied. “There’s a lot of student interest; more than what we can satisfy at this point in time in the program,” says Shafir. “Students are interested in experiential learning and clinical education. And they are really interested in mediation and conflict-resolution skills. These students that apply to the program are interested in working and making a difference and having some kind of meaningful contact with people, rather than just case law.”

That’s exactly what attracted Christine Dankowych, Vanessa Decker, and Nick Van Duyvenbode. As the Osgoode students explained before leading a recent mediation skills session at Oakdale Park Middle School’s library, law students want courses that offer real-life experiences. “I really enjoy the intensive programs,” says Dankowych. “You’re not just learning from someone that’s standing at the front of the class, just spewing information at you. Instead you’re actually doing things, and so you’re mixing learning skills with the real world. It’s more practical in my opinion.”

The Osgoode students have helped middle-school pupils learn effective conflict-resolution skills through role-playing games and brainstorming sessions, and also by discussing how they approach conflicts with their parents or peers. Decker believes the Grade 6, 7, and 8 students are at a prime stage to learn better ways to handle disagreements. “Adolescents are at an age when opinions matter more than any time in their lives, and they have a lot of conflicts,” she says. “I think the thing that we’re trying to offer is that everybody gets into fights, but obviously there are more productive and effective ways of resolving a conflict.” The Osgoode students have been impressed by how quickly the teens have learned the conflict-resolution skills that have been presented to them. “They’re very quick and articulate,” says Van Duyvenbode.

Just as Osgoode’s students realize the benefits of learning mediation skills through a combination of theoretical and real-life experiences, so too has the faculty’s leadership. Dean Lorne Sossin points out that the mediation clinic follows a similar vision to other Osgoode pro bono clinics like the Community & Legal Aid Services Program and Parkdale Community Legal Services. He envisions similar programs becoming part of the school’s lineup in due course. “You just get great value from the student and learning perspective, and from the community impact point of view,” says Sossin. “It’s really hard to argue with bang for the buck.”

While the LFO grant for the clinical mediation program is up at the end of the year, Sossin is confident the course will continue to grow well into the future. He says the only question is how much of an impact it can have, which will largely be determined by the level of support offered by the ADR and legal communities. “The question mark is how much you can grow it, and how big its impact can extend,” he explains. “The potential is tremendously exciting, but we’re going to need partners to take it to that level.”

Osgoode’s commitment to the program comes as a relief to Lakhani, who has kept ties to her brainchild. Now busy with a bustling family law practice in Markham, Ont., — where she uses her ADR and mediation expertise to divert 90 per cent of her cases away from the courts — she has returned to serve as a guest lecturer to Osgoode mediation students. “It’s kind of like the full circle — you’re going back to the school teaching for a program that we started in the cafeteria,” she says. “I’m really thrilled with the way it’s going. It sounds like we’ve had two good, full academic years. The school has really embraced the program, so I have a feeling the ADR intensive is going to be there for many years to come.”


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