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Sowing Seeds that Blossom into a Meaningful Life’s Work

Susan M. Yates, April 16th, 2024

On April 11, 2024, the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section honored me with its D’Alemberte Raven Award. The award is given “in recognition of development of new and innovative programs, demonstrated improvements in service, demonstrated improvements in efficiency, research and published writings, and development of continuing education programs.”

The following are the remarks I made at the award ceremony.

Susan M. Yates gives a speech after being presented with the D’Alamberte Raven Award at the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution 2024 Spring Conference.

Thank you.

I must say, when I first learned I was getting this award, I was stunned.

That was followed quickly by a surge of love for my friends who nominated me. Thank you, Peter, Jen, Jim, John, Kelly and Terry. I live in abject fear of leaving someone out when I publicly thank people, so I am going to stop naming names right there! But I will give a huge thank you to all my friends and colleagues, who I respect and love from the bottom of my heart.

An occasion like this was bound to lead me to reflect on my career. As I did, I thought about all the small, day-to-day actions that turned into something important for me. This evening I invite you to join me in reflecting on little things, and to keep doing those small acts because you just never know.

Here’s my first example:

It’s from the end of the ’70s. I was at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, studying mediation, arbitration, negotiation, etc. A representative from the Rochester (NY) Community Mediation Center (not their long-time executive director Andrew Thomas) came and spoke about community mediation. And that idea lodged in the back of my mind and deep in my heart.

So, when you are asked to speak to a class about mediation, conflict resolution, ADR, whatever … go! It is possible that when you do, you could plant a seed that will bloom for decades.

Another example:

ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Chair Ana Sambold, left, presented Susan Yates with the D’Alamberte Raven Award at the section’s spring conference. (Photo courtesy of ABA Section of Dispute Resolution)

A few years out of college, I was living in Chicago and found that there was a local community mediation center — what is now known as the Center for Conflict Resolution. I reached out; they were doing a mediator training the next two weekends and invited me to participate. That training, which came about because someone answered the phone and extended an invitation, formed the basis for the rest of my career!

So, as you are going about your day, answer the phone or an email, and make a simple offer. It might not be consequential for you, but it could be life changing for someone else.

Here’s an example from later in the ’80s,when I was executive director of that community mediation program in Chicago:

I went to a Chicago Bar Association reception and happened to meet in person a funder, Kent Lawrence, who was supporting our eviction mediation program via a third party. (Yes, eviction mediation was happening back in the ’80s.) From that chance meeting came a multiple-decade friendship and funding relationship that has enabled Resolution Systems Institute to grow into the organization it is today.

So, go to those gatherings and other events — whether in person or online. Meet new people and develop those personal and professional friendships.

Here’s another example from a few years later:

Jim Alfini — who many of you know and is the OG of the DR Section — invited me to grab coffee and talk about the ABA DR Section. He was about to chair the section and invited me to chair the Associates Committee. Well, that led to me serving on the Council for a number of years, being one of the ABA’s two representatives to the revision of the Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators and many, many, MANY other involvements — budgeting, nominating, ethics, strategic planning, conference programming — in the Section. In the Section, I found my professional home.

So, take someone to coffee. Invite them to engage with the DR Section or another organization of your choice. Help your colleagues find their professional home.

And one final example from about the same time in the ’90s:

Susan Yates (right) with RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack (center) and RSI Researcher Rachel Feinstein at the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Conference in April 2024.

I was executive director at Resolution Systems Institute — where I still am today — and looking to hire someone to be the second RSI staff person. One person I interviewed was right for the job, but could only promise to stay for 18 months. Well, that was the magnificent Jennifer Shack, RSI’s Director of Research, with whom we recently celebrated 25 years at RSI. Were it not for her, RSI would certainly not be the organization it is today, and I would likely not be standing here in front of you.

What does this tell us? Better to hire someone good for a short amount of time. You never know where it might lead. 

Each of these seemingly small actions had a huge impact on my life and ultimately led to me standing here this evening. So, I encourage us all to keep doing those small things. Speak to a class, respond to an email, meet people, invite someone to get involved, hire someone because they are good.

In closing, I will add another action: Nominate a colleague for an award. You will never know how much it means to the person who receives the award.

Thank you.

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.

Support RSI’s Pet Projects

Susan M. Yates, July 11th, 2023

Every time my foster dog looks at me with those big eyes, wags her tail and rolls over for a belly rub, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

You know, like the feeling you get when you think about supporting RSI’s work.

Or is that just me?

“Bri” (short for “Brillo”), foster dog of RSI Executive Director Susan M. Yates.

As the second quarter of 2023 comes to a close, I’m so proud of RSI’s accomplishments studying and sharing the qualities of successful mediation; learning how online dispute resolution programs might help parties with low literacy make better use of ODR; and mediating eviction cases.

But as meaningful as our work is at RSI, I know that, for most people, RSI’s mission doesn’t have the instant emotional appeal of rescuing dogs and cats in need.

I get it. When you support RSI, you may have to go through a step or two to get to the warm, fuzzy feeling. But rest assured, you are supporting important work that improves real lives.

Maybe you see a fair, open justice system as a foundation for democracy – and so you value procedural justice in mediation.

Maybe you can imagine how scary eviction court would be – and so you value a mediation process that enables landlords and tenants to sit with a mediator and work out solutions together.

Maybe you are eager to learn how mediation really works – and so you value our project to explore mediator behaviors that engender party trust.

Whether it is instant or it takes a few steps, I hope you enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling of supporting RSI. Please click here to make a difference by donating to RSI.

RSI Board Secretary Marinello on the Role of Arbitration and How It Has Changed

Sandy Wiegand, February 16th, 2023

Welcome to RSI’s Board Member Profile series! Each profile will feature a different member of RSI’s talented and dedicated Board of Directors. This month we focus on Board Secretary Mitchell L. Marinello.

RSI Board Secretary Mitchell L. Marinello

Mitchell L. Marinello has been a member of RSI’s Board of Directors since 2013 and has been Board Secretary since 2015. He is a partner at Novack and Macey, where he handles complex commercial cases through litigation, arbitration and mediation. Mitch also serves as a commercial arbitrator for numerous organizations including the American Arbitration Association, the International Center for Dispute Resolution, the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR), and others. We asked him to tell us about how alternative dispute resolution fits into his work, what he likes about the RSI Board, and more.

Can you share a little about your law practice and how you use ADR in your practice?

My practice is complex commercial arbitration. It involves contracts, real estate, employment, some intellectual property, and partnership law including break-ups in law firms and other businesses. Over the years, I have gotten a wide variety of cases. It’s fun in that you often learn about types of business or industries that are new to you, you litigate the issues involving those matters and then, when the case is over, you go on to something else. Of course, I also do counseling.

These days, ADR is an integral part of a commercial litigation practice, and I often represent clients in ADR settings. Arbitrations are a forum where trials are much more common than they are in court and you get to the merits of the case much faster. That has advantages for clients and for lawyers who usually find trials to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of litigation. I also serve as a mediator and arbitrator myself. To date, I have served as a mediator in about 20 cases and as an arbitrator in more than 240. As a mediator, I have had good success in settling cases, and my mediation practice has been picking up.

Mediations generally don’t work unless both sides are genuinely interested in them and enough information has been shared so that both sides can calculate the benefits and risks of going to a judgment on the merits. An extremely high percentage of commercial lawsuits eventually settle, so once enough information is on the table, there is a reasonably good chance of settling the case. I recommend mediation in appropriate settings. There are several factors to consider.

What led you to join the RSI Board?

I met (RSI Board member) Hon. Morton Denlow (ret.) years ago through the Chicago Bar Association and knew him from his time on the bench. He also knew other people in my firm very well. And then I had a mediation in front of him that was settled as a result of his efforts. He knew that I was interested in ADR, and some time after that he asked if I would be interested in joining the RSI Board. He gave a positive review of the organization, and I thought it would be interesting to learn about the organization and get to know the other Board members who at that time were mostly retired judges. I was and still am primarily focused on arbitration, while RSI is focused exclusively on mediation, but I thought RSI’s mediation programs would be interesting to learn about.

What’s your favorite thing about being on the RSI Board?

The people who work at RSI are very good at the services they provide. They are intelligent, dedicated and easy to get along with; getting to work with them is one benefit of being on the Board. Another benefit is that the Board members are a varied and interesting group of people.

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

I started off as an attorney in New York City. We had some clients in the textile business, a client in the steel business, and a client in the paint supply business. They all had arbitration clauses in their agreements, and they ended up filing arbitrations involving breach of contract claims against companies they had supplied products to. The firm let me handle those arbitrations as a young lawyer, and I enjoyed them. I also started to think about how the arbitration process could be improved.

One thing people don’t necessarily know is how much arbitration has changed since the early 1980s. Then, like now, you would get a list of potential arbitrators and each side would get to strike and rank them. Well, I would try to find out information about the panel members, and it was very hard to do. There was no internet, of course, and the information in lawyer listings was pretty minimal, and it all sounded the same. I also discovered that some of the people on the arbitration panels were completely retired and that others had passed away! Also there wasn’t much arbitration in those days. People volunteered to be on the panels, but even if they were senior attorneys, that didn’t mean they had any significant experience as arbitrators.

In the early ’90s, things really started to change. The panels were updated, and a more rigorous process was put in place before you could become an arbitrator. Gradually, that also corresponded with an increasing number of arbitrations and with larger cases. I got really interested in arbitration and applied to be on the AAA panel. I got on the AAA panel in the early ’90s, and I started off getting small cases to arbitrate. And over time it just gradually grew. So now I get some very large and complex cases.

The increasing popularity of arbitration coincides with Supreme Court decisions that have given the Federal Arbitration Act new life and with the crowding of the courts, the high cost of litigation, and the long time it takes in court to get to trial. Arbitration and mediation benefit clients, but they also are in a very major sense relief valves for the court system. And, as RSI has shown, mediation also can help people who cannot afford the high cost of litigation resolve their disputes and get a chance to be heard.

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