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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.