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Just Court ADR

The blog of Resolution Systems Institute

A Glitch In The Matrix: The Challenges of ODR

Eric Slepak, April 19th, 2018

In my previous entry, I shared the features of online dispute resolution, or ODR, that had me excited about the myriad ways technology is shaping the way we approach dispute resolution. But as is so often the case with technology, the flip side of new opportunities is the potential for abuse (as the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony before Congress demonstrates). Here are my three biggest concerns I’ve identified in researching ODR and talking with courts about it.

ODR is Not a Crock-Pot
In an age where Amazon can reliably create our shopping lists for us and the timeline for self-driving cars to rule the road is being projected in years, not decades, it is tempting to think that the computerization of dispute resolution will be a fully automated process that will free our courts to just ‘set it and forget it.’ This canard, which has also plagued non-digital ADR as well in a slightly different format, presupposes that there is no need for regular human intervention.

In reality, implementing ODR into our courts will not only require a watchful eye, but probably several sets of them. The recent requirement to e-file cases in my home state of Illinois provides a good example. Circuit Court clerks across the state geared up for nearly two years to launch this change, and many are still working through a transition period where they are still utilizing paper filings as a redundancy and staffing personnel to help answer litigant questions.

Beware the Crock-Pot. Image: NBC

Similar precautions, and then some, would be needed to introduce ODR into a court ecosystem. There would need to be rigorous education and outreach offering, both prior to and coinciding with program launch. Staff would need to be available to address technical issues and procedural questions. Ongoing monitoring to assess the program’s success, making necessary adjustments to the program, and reporting back to judges and court administration are all aspects that require human intervention. While that involvement may decrease over time, ODR is not a crock-pot: you can’t just throw everything together, hit start and expect things to work out.

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RSI Staff Attend ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Spring Conference

Nicole Wilmet, April 18th, 2018

Our Executive Director Susan Yates and Director of Research Jennifer Shack had a wonderful time at the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution 20th Annual Spring Conference!

During the Court ADR Symposium, which takes place the first day of the conference, Susan joined Sheila Purcell of UC Hastings College of the Law and Colin Rule of Tyler Technologies on a panel to discuss integrating online dispute resolution with the courts. The session was packed, indicating the level of interest in online dispute resolution among those working in court ADR. Also during the Court Symposium, Susan hosted a court ADR resource share in which individuals working in court ADR discussed the resources they consult to support them in their work. During the main part of the conference, Jen joined the Hon. ​Joyce Kimbler, Diana Ramos-Reardon, Esq., and ​Hon. Richard Altman on a panel to present on ​Ohio’s pilot civil stalking protection order mediation program.

Thank you to the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution for another great conference. Until next year!

(Thank you to our friend John Lande for the photos!)

Special Masters in the News

Susan M. Yates, April 16th, 2018

It’s not every morning that a court ADR mechanism is mentioned in a top news story, but there it was this morning. The idea of a special master was raised in a discussion of options for the court when it comes to deciding what is inside and outside the bounds of attorney-client privilege in the case of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal lawyer, whose home, office and hotel room were the subject of a recent search warrant.

The intricacies of “clean teams” and “dirty teams” are far outside my knowledge base, but “special master” is something I understand. RSI defines it in our Court ADR Basics,  “… special masters, are appointed by the court, not the parties, to ensure that a court order is being followed.” For more in-depth information about how the federal court operates in terms of special masters, you might want to check out the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 53, Masters, which includes extensive notes on the 2003 amendments to Rule 53.

Whether or not the court decides to name a special master in this situation, as a self-professed court ADR nerd, the fact that it is part of the public discussion was a cool way to start the week.

Get to Know You Interview Series: Eric Slepak

Just Court ADR, April 10th, 2018

Welcome to the third installment in our Get to Know You Interview series! My name is Nicole Wilmet and I am RSI’s Resource Center Director. In this series, I will be sitting down with members of the RSI staff to learn more about them and what they do in their role at RSI.

This month, I sat down with RSI’s Director of ADR Programs Eric Slepak!

NW: What is your role at RSI?

ES: Director of ADR Programs. I oversee our four programs: the three foreclosure mediation programs we run in Illinois’ 16th, 17th and 19th judicial circuits, and our child protection mediation program in the 16th. This includes supervising staff, writing grant reports and securing funding. Additionally, my role involves seeking out and develop new programmatic opportunities for RSI, and sharing lessons learned from running our programs with the court ADR community.

NW: How long have you been at RSI?

ES: I’ve been at RSI since July 2015. I started as Director of ADR Programs in August 2016. Before that, I was in your old job as RSI’s Resource Center Director!

NW: How did you first get involved in ADR?

ES: Pure serendipity! At the end of my 1L year at Cardozo, I was offered a spot on the school’s Journal of Conflict Resolution. I knew nothing of ADR, other than it appealed to the peace-keeping, problem-solving part of me that the rest of my law school curriculum didn’t really address. I was incredibly fortunate to thereafter have access to some of the leading ADR scholars and practitioners through the Journal and the school’s Kukin Program for Conflict Resolution.

NW: What aspect of ADR are you most interested in? Why?

ES: I love the potential ADR has as a component of Access to Justice. For a large segment of the population, the hurdles to getting their “day in court” are significant. Representation is a luxury. Due process gets compromised by bureaucracy and other undue burdens. Delays are the norm. Seeing a court case through is a full-time, multi-year project. The result is you have a lot of people making concessions for the sake of expediency without ever really feeling heard.

ADR, in its myriad forms, presents some practical solutions to many of these issues. ADR processes can be designed to even the playing field, and a competent neutral can assist the parties in better understanding the nature of the conflict in front of them. Judges who are ADR-savvy can refer the sticky cases, where relationships and other extenuating factors really control the conflict, freeing them to focus on those cases that hinge on the law, where their expertise is really needed. This is a win-win all around: cases get resolved more efficiently while parties feel heard (there’s a good bit of data to back up the premise that ADR creates procedural satisfaction).

Compared to some of the more sweeping reforms that Access to Justice advocates have proposed (necessary as they are), I think increased adoption of ADR is relatively low-hanging fruit that would ameliorate many issues.

NW: What is a typical day like as the Director of ADR Programs?

ES: Ha, good one! To the extent there is a typical day in this role, it will usually start with going through my inbox and figuring out what my priorities are for any given day. That can range from helping the Program Coordinators in our mediation programs solve sticky issues, working with program stakeholders to address concerns they may have, or reaching out to folks in other programs throughout Illinois or across the country to share our experiences and give them some ideas about how to improve their programs.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a fairly big transition as an organization. At the end of August, our grant funding from the Office of the Illinois Attorney General to administer foreclosure mediation programs will come to an end. We are figuring out how these programs will continue after this funding ends, which necessarily requires some changes to their operations. This requires a lot of hypothetical thinking and advanced planning, but will hopefully serve our ultimate goal of continuing to offer this essential service to Illinois homeowners and their lenders with as few disruptions as possible.

I’ve also been spending some time thinking how we can best leverage the experience we’ve had in running these programs. If you saw my recent post about online dispute resolution, that’s come out of some noodling on what it would be like to build technology into the infrastructure of a court ADR program, understanding that that technology will only succeed if it’s thoughtfully implemented in a way that actually addresses disputants’ needs.

NW: What is your favorite part of your job? Why?

ES: In this role, I get to explore the big picture, and think about what’s the next big thing. I’m able to take our successes in running programs – on which I am greatly indebted to our fantastic program coordinators Olga, Sarah and Kevin, who ensure our programs work so smoothly day in and day out – and think, “Okay, how do we do this even better?” I’m constantly researching, learning and growing. All of this makes the job feel really freeing and rewarding.

NW: What, if any, would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing ADR programs and how are we working to overcome these challenge in our ADR programs?

ES: While a lot of focus is paid, and rightly so, on what goes on in the mediation room, there’s a lot of unsung work that happens outside of it.

People, by and large, dread having to go to court. The sheer presence of program staff who can explain options to people and give them some information, especially when legal services are hard to access, can be a huge relief. Factor in the correspondence with parties, scheduling, filing notices and motions with the court, reporting to the court after the case, monitoring program trends – all of this is vital work that program administrators do that courts and other stakeholders don’t necessarily always value accordingly.

We’ve often shared data that backs up this model of dispute system design with court administrators, who can then go to their bosses (and often the municipalities or state governments that control their purse strings) and convince them they should invest in these systems, we are helping to overcome this challenge.

NW: What would say have been some of the greatest successes of our ADR programs?

ES: Our child protection mediation program is still in a nascent state, and I’ll be excited to share the outcomes when we have more cases. For now, I think the enthusiasm it is generating among the stakeholders, including the court, state’s attorney’s office, Court Appointed Special Advocates and DCFS is the most rewarding result we’ve seen thus far.

Our foreclosure mediation programs have served over 2,300 people. In over 500 of those cases, homeowners were given at least a temporary loan modification that allowed them to stay in their home. In many cases, that was an outcome they were unlikely to get in court, having less to do with the merits of their case and more to do with a legal process that failed to accord proper safeguards to the vulnerable populations we saw at the heart of the foreclosure crisis. That’s probably a big reason we see procedural satisfaction rates well upwards of 90%, because people finally feel like they are heard. It’s worth noting that also includes responses on the lenders’ side, which lets us know that we’ve designed a fair system.

NW: What are some of your favorite projects that you have worked on while at RSI? Why?

ES: My favorite project has been launching the Child Protection Mediation program. Along with Susan & Kevin (RSI’s Kane County Program Coordinator), I’ve gotten to help shape what the program looks like, with the goal of making it a productive forum for families, case workers and the children (vis a vis the CASA guardian ad litems) to work towards a safe and sustainable permanency. We’ve done this in a number of ways, from designing program procedures and policies that prioritize the safety of the children and developing trust and cooperation among parties, to developing a training curriculum and continuing education courses to ensure our mediators have the tools they need to tackle these tough cases. My hope is that the program we’ve created can become a blueprint for others who want to introduce mediation into their abuse & neglect courtrooms, because I’ve gotten to see firsthand the value mediation provides for these families.

NW: What is your favorite activity to do outside of work?

ES: My job involves me thinking a lot about how rules and procedures shape systems, as well as the needs, interests and relationships that guide interaction between people. So is it all that surprising that my biggest hobby outside of work is playing board games?

I’ve channeled that particular passion into organizing a bimonthly board game & craft beer meetup, so if you ever want to discuss how Settlers of Catan stands in as a proxy for complex, multi-party negotiation, you know where to find me.

NW: If you could have dinner with any three people (living or dead) who would they be and why?


  1. Francisco de Miranda – I recently revisited the fantastic series on the revolutions of Latin America put together by Mike Duncan for his Revolutions podcast, and was reminded of this fascinating figure. Miranda, known as “The Precursor”, would pave the way for future Venezuelan revolution. A world traveler, he hobnobbed with the Founding Fathers, participated in the French Revolution, and hung out with Catharine the Great of Russia. He probably has more firsthand experience with all of the interesting seismic events that took place during the late 18th/early 19th centuries, and judging by all the friends he made along the way, would probably be full of lively conversation.
  2. Harriet Tubman – In thinking about a more a just world, it’s one thing to identify injustice and propose a solution. It’s a wholly different matter to possess the bravery to speak out and act against that injustice. I don’t know whether there’s any surefire way to cultivate that bravery, but I have to think hearing stories of courage from the bravest person I can think of wouldn’t hurt.
  3. My partner, Shannon – I could pick one more of any number of incredible living or historical figures, but that invitation would be one of diminishing returns compared to my partner and best friend. She’s got an incredibly curious mind that would prompt some great questions and conversation. And it’d be way more fun to try and process that fascinating dinner we just had together.

Eric, his wife Shannon, and their dog Yeti.

My Favorite Resource Featuring Debora Denny

Nicole Wilmet, April 2nd, 2018
Last month, we launched our new series My Favorite Resource where we reach out to court ADR friends across the country to learn about their favorite ADR resource. This month, we spoke with Debora Denny, the Director of the Nebraska Office of Dispute Resolution, to learn about her favorite resource.
NW: What is your favorite ADR resource?

DD: Restorative Justice Dialogue: An Essential Guide for Research and Practice, by Mark Umbreit and Marilyn Peterson Amour, with forward by Howard Zehr.

NW: Why do you value this particular resource?

DD:  Nebraska Office of Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) and its six regional ODR-approved mediation centers are implementing a three-year statewide juvenile restorative justice program in what we are calling “Victim Youth Conferencing.” This model is what was formerly called Victim Offender Mediation or Victim Offender Dialogue. Dr. Mark Umbreit and his colleagues from the University of Minnesota Center on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking have been our partners since 2015 on a prior successful VYC pilot. I used this book to help me write the original grant proposal to fund the pilot, as well as to assist me in developing training objectives and policy protocols. It was extremely timely and useful.

NW: How did you first learn about this resource?

DD:  I knew about Dr. Umbreit and his VOM work from the 1990s when he came to Nebraska to teach at the Office of Dispute Resolution and the ODR mediation centers about VOM and Restorative Justice. When I began researching RJ a few years ago, I immediately searched for Dr. Umbreit’s name and found this book.

NW: For those unfamiliar with this resource, what is one part of this resource that you wouldn’t want someone to miss?

DD: This book contains a spectrum of RJ practices, including, VOM, RJ Dialogue, Family Group Conferencing, Peacemaking Circle, Culture and Spirituality. It contains cited references to research and evidence-based practices that made the difference to funders and justice system administrators who are requiring evidence-based practice.

If you have a favorite resource you would like to share in an upcoming edition of our newsletter, please reach out to our Resource Center Director and Court ADR Connection Editor, Nicole Wilmet at!