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From Research to Program Operation, RSI Dug into the Elements of Effective ADR in ’23

Just Court ADR, April 3rd, 2024

In 2023, RSI continued to dig deep into identifying the variables that make court-related alternative dispute resolution (ADR) effective. We did this through innovative research and day-to-day program implementation.

Today, we are pleased to share a summary of that work in Resolution Systems Institute’s 2023 Annual Report, which focuses on the elements of effective ADR. We hope you’ll check it out!

RSI is fascinated and inspired by all that our work has taught us. And we are grateful to have the privilege of continuing to examine the elements of effective court-related ADR as a means of enhancing access to justice.

Thank you for your continued interest in and support of our work.

New Board Member Oladeji Tiamiyu Talks Tech, ADR and More

Just Court ADR, March 19th, 2024

Resolution Systems Institute (RSI) recently welcomed two new members to its Board of Directors! Texas A&M Law Professor Nancy A. Welsh and University of Denver Law Professor Oladeji M. Tiamiyu attended their first Board meeting in February, and RSI is so grateful for their service. We’d like to help you get to know them, beginning this month with a Q&A with Prof. Tiamiyu.  

Professor Oladeji Tiamiyu is an RSI board member

Oladeji Tiamiyu is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Denver (DU) and an Expert Adviser to early-stage ventures at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. Before joining DU, he was a clinician at Harvard Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. His research interests focus on the intersection of technology and dispute resolution. Read more about his background and find links to his work in his RSI bio.

When/where were you first introduced to alternative dispute resolution?

Before I went to law school, I had some degree of concern that the courts were not always the best place to resolve conflict. And I fondly remember being in my criminal law class, one of my favorite classes in law school with Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, and thinking about alternatives to the carceral state. Shortly after then, I took a law school negotiations class that served as a gateway drug to this field. Now when I think about ADR, it is no longer about being an “alternative” in the strict sense of the word, but instead being a complement to litigation, so there’s been some personal evolution in how I think about the field.

I understand that you have a particular interest in the intersection of technology and dispute resolution. What drew you to this combination of topics?

Yes, well, I don’t know the extent my interest would have developed without Colin Rule. I had my first conversation with him in 2019, and I left essentially salivating for more ideas. From an intellectual and practical level, Colin has shaped me and hundreds of thousands of others in thinking about technology’s role with ADR.

And a few months after this conversation, there was dramatic upheaval in the legal profession. The legal tectonic plates were shifting dramatically. With the pandemic, courts were closed. Mediators and arbitrators were staying at home. It probably was the first time some of my highly social mediator friends didn’t want to meet anyone in person. And it was during this time that technology’s role became more than an esoteric idea, but instead necessary to keeping the courthouse open, albeit virtually.

Maybe we’ll talk about this later, but I found a way to work at RSI during this moment of change. So if Colin was the first to spark my interest, I am indebted to RSI, Susan Yates and Erik Slepak-Cherney for giving me space to explore technology’s role on a practical level.

What are some of the big questions related to tech and dispute resolution that interest you?

There are many. One lingering question from COVID is whether the pandemic led to a permanent change in how dispute resolution is practiced. Are mediators and arbitrators comfortable in incorporating online processes? Is there a critical mass of parties and disputes seeking out online processes? There’s some amount of data to suggest the answer to both is yes, but as we have greater psychological and temporal separation from the pandemic, there will be greater clarity.

I also share a sentiment with many other ODR scholars about whether online process increases access to justice. I’ll go a step further in inquiring whether the relationship between parties fundamentally changes when engaging in online process. That is, do parties communicate differently, problem-solve differently, trust differently and build consensus differently when in an online space?

There’s also the question of the role of artificial intelligence in these systems. Nvidia, ChatGPT, and Brazil’s VICTOR have all expanded our horizons for what could be possible with AI. I’m excited to see who will be the Jen-Hsun Huang of the dispute resolution field that develops an application with AI to fundamentally change what is possible in ADR. 

The exciting part is that RSI is at a unique position to bring clarity to these questions.

What attracted you to/made you want to join the RSI Board?

RSI as an organization. We have done such important research over the years. We have collaborated with innovative courts. I’ve also been on the other side as an employee, and I personally know the integrity of the employees.

I am particularly honored to be joining RSI at this specific time of change. Susan Yates is one of the foremost thought leaders in our field. Judges know it. Academics know it. The American Bar Association knows it. As she leaves RSI, I was intrigued at being a steward for this great organization to ensure that we continue to do the important work our organization has historically championed.

What are your ADR-related courses or other activities at the University of Denver law school?

From my lens, everything I teach has an ADR bend to it. So much of the modern-day legal profession depends on ADR skillsets. As Arthur Miller described many years ago, settlement and negotiations cannot be separated from being a lawyer. So I teach Contract Law, Family Law, and a survey of ADR course. Yet with Contract Law, my students get an introduction to simulations for negotiating contracts that advance their client’s interests, or simulations that prepare them to negotiate out-of-court settlements when there is a breach of contract.

In Family Law, my students do simulations in mediating and negotiating agreements for child custody and alimony. Much of what I try to impart in all of my classes is that ADR skillsets will help my students be better client-centered lawyers.

You were a Public Interest Law Initiative Fellow with RSI in the past. Is there something you learned or experienced in that role that will help you in your work on the RSI Board?

Yes, I have tremendous admiration for the PILI fellowship and gratitude for Sidley Austin LLP for their active engagement in public interest work in both Illinois and nationally. I hope more law graduates practicing in Illinois recognize how special of a state Illinois is for building the infrastructure for PILI. Overall, my PILI fellowship informed some of my hopes and aspirations for the ADR field. It was through PILI that I met some of the nation’s leading dispute resolution practitioners based in Chicago.

But the most valuable lesson I learned from being a PILI Fellow has less to do with ADR. Because RSI is such a collegial and accessible non-profit, my time as a PILI Fellow helped me to appreciate the impact that non-profits can have. Fulfilling lawyering can be in a non-profit office as much as in a law firm or in a courtroom.

What in your current academic work, if anything, relates to the work of RSI?

Much of my research touches on topics that are highly germane to RSI. My research shares a fundamental commitment to exploring how best to leverage dispute resolution to promote access to justice.

What are you most looking forward to during your time on the RSI Board?  

Chicago is fortunate to have RSI, but RSI can and historically has had an impact in different corners of the country. So I am excited to see how our organization grows, especially in a time when there is a fundamental change in the legal profession. There are few other organizations with as sizeable of a network with the judiciary, legal profession and dispute resolution field. I’m excited to see how we can use all of these assets to introduce greater innovation for dispute resolution.

RSI Executive Director Susan M. Yates to Receive ABA’s D’Alemberte Raven Award

Just Court ADR, March 11th, 2024

RSI is thrilled to share the news that the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution (ABA DR Section) has chosen our own Susan M. Yates to receive its prestigious D’Alemberte Raven Award this year!

Resolution Systems Institute Executive Director Susan M. Yates

The ABA DR Section will present the award at its 2024 Dispute Resolution Spring Conference, taking place April 10–13 in San Diego.

The D’Alemberte Raven Award is the premier award in the field of alternative dispute resolution. It is presented to an individual or organization that has contributed significantly to the dispute resolution field through the development of new or innovative programs, improvements in service, improvements in efficiency, research and/or published writings, and/or development of continuing education programs.

As you may know, Susan has been Executive Director of RSI since 1997, when she was instrumental in its founding. She is responsible for implementing RSI’s mission of strengthening access to justice by enhancing court ADR systems.

“Susan’s astute, dedicated stewardship has made RSI the nationally respected ADR thought leader it is today,” said longtime member of the RSI Board of Directors Terry Moritz. “Because of her leadership, RSI has continued to develop landmark research and is enabling the ADR field to maintain high standards of both efficiency and ethics. Susan’s recognition by the Dispute Resolution Section of the ABA is certainly well deserved.”

Please join us in congratulating Susan on this wonderful achievement!

Jennifer Shack Talks about Inspirations, Dream Projects and the Future of ADR

Just Court ADR, July 19th, 2023

RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack often uses this space to tell us about a new research project or share findings from her latest ADR program evaluation. Today, we asked her to take a step back and answer a few questions about what drives her work, as well as share her thoughts on a few “big questions” in our field.

What drew you to studying alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a career?

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, West Africa, I observed how the village chiefs resolved conflicts through what I was to discover was mediation. I thought it would be great to have something similar here in the States – a way to resolve conflicts without court intervention and in a way in which both parties felt was fair. I was surprised to learn about mediation when I returned home, and excited when I saw an ad for a job opening that started with the words “Interested in mediation?” I applied, and 24 years later I’m still enjoying my work at RSI.

What is your favorite part of your work?

So much! I really enjoy designing evaluations and research projects. I love interviewing program participants and conducting focus groups because I get to learn on a much deeper level how mediation programs affect the participants – and because I get to meet so many interesting people. I also have a lot of fun digging into data to find out what story they tell about a program or an issue and then writing that story.

Do you have a long-term wish list in terms of aspects of court-based ADR that you’d like to study?

I have a lot of items on my wish list. I’ll just talk about my top three. As you know, Donna Shestowsky and I evaluated two text-based ODR programs. I have also evaluated programs that involved in-person and video mediation. I would love to delve further into how these three different processes affect participant experience, particularly in what and how they communicate with each other and the mediator, and whether agreement terms differ. The more we know about how these processes are experienced by parties, the better we can become at determining which method best fits with different case types and situations, and the more we can improve the participant experience.

I would also love to do longitudinal research on child protection mediation. Having conducted a couple of evaluations on child protection mediation programs and interviewed parents after they participated in mediation, I think this is one of the best uses of mediation. But I’d like to know more about its long-term impact on families.

My third item on my wish list is already starting to become true. For decades, I and so many others have wanted to look inside the black box of mediation and find out what works and what doesn’t. We’re starting to do this with the Mediator Trust Project, but that’s only the first step. There are many aspects that can be examined. For example, in family mediation we can examine mediation’s effect on co-parenting and family dynamics. Another possibility is researching whether there are certain things mediators do that increase the probability of impasse.

RSI’s research team has recently expanded to include two additional full-time employees. How has this affected your day-to-day work or RSI’s project work?

RSI’s Research and Evaluation team recently expanded to include Rachel Feinstein, left, and Jasmine Henry.

Having Rachel and Jasmine join us has been wonderful. It’s really helpful to be able to talk through ideas and issues with other research-minded colleagues. I also am happy to have Jas do research on an idea that I otherwise wouldn’t have time to explore. But most of all having Rachel take leadership on our OPEN Project has allowed me to focus on our Mediator Trust Project while Jasmine continues to monitor and report on the participant surveys from the eviction mediation program RSI administers.

What trends do you see in court-based ADR that you think are likely to persist?

I think remote dispute resolution is here to stay, whether it’s video mediation or text-based ODR. Video mediation will continue to be prevalent, and I’m seeing signs that text-based ODR is going to become much more common in the near future. Artificial intelligence (AI) will make inroads in dispute resolution, particularly in helping parties to negotiate and write agreements. AI may also one day mediate between parties as well.

Outside of technology, I believe courts will continue to implement ADR to address crises, as we have seen with foreclosure and eviction. My optimistic side leads me to think that more courts will treat such cases holistically, attempting to resolve not just the dispute but the problems that led to the dispute in the first place – for example, providing housing and financial counseling to parties at risk of homelessness.

What is your least favorite part of your work?

Probably not having the time or money to pursue all the projects I’d like to do.

What do you see as keys to making court-based ADR more accessible?

The main thing is to break down barriers to participation. This means making the ADR process easier to navigate and use. It also means communicating with parties using multiple methods and keeping in mind best practices for individuals with low literacy. Courts need to ensure that parties know about the existence of ADR options. Donna Shestowsky’s research on civil court ADR and our evaluations of court ODR programs have shown that too many parties don’t know that ADR programs exist. Courts should also educate parties about the benefits and risks of their options if they have them, so they can make informed decisions about those options.

Limited Participation Reduces Success of Otherwise Promising Texas Pilot ODR Program, Evaluation Finds

Just Court ADR, May 31st, 2022

A newly published study conducted by RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack and University of California, Davis, Professor Donna Shestowsky highlights both the potential of online dispute resolution (ODR) and the importance of appropriate outreach and education on ODR to maximize participation and, thus, program impact.

Jen and Donna evaluated a pilot program in Collin County, Texas, that used a text-based ODR platform to resolve debt and small claims cases in a single court. By adopting ODR, the court sought to reduce the burden of a growing caseload while providing access to justice through a process that did not require the parties to travel or miss work to resolve their case.

The evaluation produced evidence that ODR can be an effective method of dispute resolution, especially for debt cases. In 73% of cases where both parties used the ODR platform, participants resolved their dispute and avoided trial. The rate is similar to that of cases that had the opportunity to use in-person mediation. Unfortunately, however, the program’s goals were not met, because both sides used ODR in only 24% of cases uploaded to the platform. Findings and recommendations related to these outcomes are discussed later in this summary.

The Pilot Program

The pilot ran from September 2019 through August 2020; thus it was concurrent with the COVID-19 pandemic from March to August 2020. Additionally, because ODR is a rather new practice in this context, some details of the program and the platform’s application were being worked out even as the evaluation took place.

The Modria ODR platform allowed parties to communicate by text one-on-one or with the help of a mediator. Parties were ostensibly required to use the platform before their first hearing. If parties reached agreement, their case was dismissed without a trial. During the 12-month pilot period, 1,874 debt and 274 small claims cases were filed, for a total of 2,148 cases.

When a defendant filed an answer, the civil clerk determined whether the case was eligible for ODR. It was ineligible if one side had multiple parties, if a party was not equipped to use ODR, or (until the second quarter of 2020) if the court did not have email addresses for both parties or their attorneys. If the case was eligible, the clerk uploaded it to the ODR platform, which in turn rejected any cases that contained errors, such as missing information, and sent an error report to the IT department so the errors could be fixed. When email addresses and phone numbers were available, the platform sent an automated email (and after April 2020, also a text) to the parties, instructing them to use ODR. The clerk also set the case for trial and mailed the parties, or their attorneys, a notice of their trial date and informed them they were required to use ODR prior to that date. The notice included a link to the platform.

Once a case was uploaded to ODR, participants had 45 days to negotiate one-on-one via the platform’s chat function. At any time during this window, either side could ask for a mediator. Mediation cost each party $40 and had to be completed within 30 days.

If participants reached agreement on the platform, they were given the opportunity to sign an online agreed judgment form, which was automatically sent to the case management system, and the trial was cancelled. If the participants did not reach agreement, the parties continued to trial unless they otherwise reached agreement before the trial date.

Key Findings

Below are some of Jen and Donna’s main findings and top recommendations from their evaluation. For more details and complete recommendations, read the full report here.

Litigant Use of ODR

  • 49% of cases with answers filed were uploaded to ODR. During the pilot period, answers were filed in 698 cases. These 698 cases form the subset that could potentially have been uploaded to ODR. Of these, 341 cases (49%) were eligible and did not contain errors that barred their upload. These were ultimately offered ODR. According to court staff, the most common reason that cases with answers filed were not uploaded to ODR appears to be that the court lacked email addresses for at least one side of the case.
  • One party completed at least one activity online in 50% of cases uploaded to ODR. In 170 of 341 cases (50%), at least one case participant performed at least one activity on the ODR platform, such as asserting a claim, uploading a file, or using the chat function to communicate with the other side.
  • Both sides completed at least one activity on the ODR platform in about one-fourth of eligible cases. In 81 cases (24%) uploaded to ODR, both sides used the platform. Parties in small claims cases were more likely to use ODR (76%) than parties in debt claim cases (45%).
  • Litigants appeared to be unaware of the ODR program. Litigant survey responses suggested that parties were generally not aware of the ODR program, despite participation being required. Only one survey respondent out of ten indicated having received information about the program. When asked what would make them more likely to use ODR for a similar case in the future, half said more information.
  • Litigants had limited access to information about the ODR program. According to court staff, the only ways litigants received information from the court about the ODR program was through the notice the court mailed to them (or their lawyers) about their court date and through an email or text from the platform when the court uploaded their case, if their side had an email address or cellphone number on file with the court. Both of these events occurred only after the defendant filed an answer.
  • Litigants appear open to online options. Among survey respondents, none of whom had participated in ODR, two out of three indicated that the option to use it in future similar cases was attractive. Similarly, when asked to consider using video mediation to resolve future similar cases, 60% responded favorably. 

Outcomes and Time to Disposition

  • 73% of cases in which both parties used ODR resolved before trial. The percentage of ODR cases that resolved before trial was similar to that of cases that did not use ODR, both before and during the ODR program.
  • Debt claim cases were significantly more likely than small claims cases to resolve before trial. Additionally, debt claim cases in which defendants were represented were significantly more likely to resolve before trial than debt claim cases in which defendants were unrepresented.
  • Time to resolution was, on average, 4.6 months for cases that used ODR. This figure includes cases delayed either because of the court’s closure amid the COVID-19 pandemic or because of an upload error on a court server.

Program Costs

It is important to note that workload and cost conclusions are derived from self-reports made during interviews and are inherently subjective.

  • Direct costs to the court to implement ODR were covered by a filing fee. Litigants covered the costs through an extra $5 filing fee the court instituted for all civil cases filed in Collin County except eviction and mental health cases.
  • There were significant indirect costs to the court. Court personnel indicated that they devoted a significant amount of time to ODR prior to its launch. The project manager estimated that the cost in staff time approached six figures and was largely due, in his opinion, to the numerous meetings that involved many court personnel as well as the high percentage of time that he and the responsible IT staff member spent on the project in this phase. Some of this effort laid the groundwork for an anticipated county-wide rollout of ODR.
  • Costs to administer ODR were minimal. After the program’s launch, the time that personnel spent on ODR appeared to drop considerably. No one interviewed reported spending more than a couple of hours per week on the project.
  • ODR did not appreciably change administrative workload. The court administrator and the civil clerk did not perceive an appreciable increase or decrease in their workload. However, it is hard to determine what their workload may have been in the absence of the COVID-19 pandemic, or how much it would have been had greater effort been expended on promoting litigants’ awareness of the program and otherwise attempting to increase ODR use.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of this evaluation, the following recommendations may be relevant for any court considering implementing ODR:

  • Expect to spend significant time and resources to get the program up and running.
  • Notify parties and lawyers about the ODR program early in the process.
  • Educate litigants and lawyers more fully about the program.
  • Conduct outreach to raise awareness of, and promote interest in, the ODR program.
  • Explore video mediation as a dispute resolution option.
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