For law students who want to boost their employability and fill a gap in their curriculum, and for professionals and academics who want to share their knowledge and do some serious networking, mediation competitions are the place to be. Not only do they provide valuable professional opportunities for those involved, but they also signal a change in certain legal defaults that have existed for centuries.
But first, how on earth can you mediate and negotiate competitively, particularly when the rules favour collaboration, interest-based negotiation and joint problem solving approaches?
The application process is fiercely competitive
Students must scrape together enough dollars / euros / rupees towards their entry fee, then, assuming they get through the fiercely competitive application process, stump up a few more $1000 to meet the travel and other expenses to reach the starting line.
Students compete either in negotiation teams, made up of lawyer and client, or as mediators.
Teams are given fictitious cases to mediate and negotiate in sessions against other law schools in front of judges, who tend to be well respected professionals and academics in the field of law and dispute resolution.
The judges assess their skills, in a Strictly Come Dancing kind of way, against pre-determined criteria, and give them feedback on their performances to further their learning. At the end of several rounds two teams (and sometimes a mediator) are left for the finals which one negotiation team and one mediator will win.
The popularity of these competitions is undeniable
The longest established competition is held by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in Paris and sees an average of 350 students from roughly 66 universities and 130 professionals participate every year. New competitions are appearing every year all over the globe, most notably in India.
So why do so many law students travel across the world to participate?
What benefit do the students, on the one hand, and their law schools, on the other, get out of this?
Three big ones stand out:1. The lawyers of the 21st Century need dispute resolutions skills and this is an excellent way to get them.
2. Students get to meet respected experts in the flesh and learn from them directly.
3. Law schools, and professionals, get to boost their profiles on the international stage.
The way disputes are being resolved is changing
New mediation laws and conventions, client research and the growing role technology is playing in legal practice all point to an increased relevance for collaborative ways of resolving disputes before or instead of litigation. Students know this and want to be part of it. They have read Professor Susskind’s books and know that many of the tasks now done by human lawyers will, in the future, be done by technology.
Learning inherently human skills such as those used in mediation and negotiation are used every single day, as Nadja Alexander, Professor of Law (Practice) at Singapore Management University points out, and are therefore seen as a good bet for staying employed in the decades to come.
Students see the value of acquiring these competencies
Whether through lack of awareness or, more likely, overstretched resources, many universities still focus on black letter law however and have not integrated dispute resolution into the core legal curriculum. It may be offered as an optional add on, or maybe at postgraduate level but alternative dispute resolution is still not a core subject in the majority of undergraduate law courses. Students therefore choose to access learning in this area by applying for competitions. They are usually supported by a faculty member who acts as coach, often outside their regular teaching hours, though it is surprising how many students travel to competitions on their own, having accessed coaching from postgraduate students or previous competitors, and go it (essentially) alone.
They clearly see the value in learning – and demonstrating – these skills and the willingness to go the extra mile (literally) for their futures.
A once-in-a-degree opportunity that the best law school couldn't replicate
Which brings us to the learning. The best law school in the world couldn't replicate the experience of a second year law standing in Vienna’s City Hall while receiving feedback on their negotiation skills from the highest earning mediator in the UK. For the students, it is a once in a degree opportunity not only to watch real professionals do what they do (where they act as mediators) but to have the same professionals assess their (the student’s) skills and performance and give them concrete guidance on what else they can learn. Not only do they get to learn from them in the formal setting of the competition session, but the social and networking events that are a key feature of all of these competitions offer them the opportunity to chat with them informally and exchange advice, wisdom and business cards.
For the professionals, it is an utter privilege to witness the diligence, dedication and talent of these students. Suffice it to say that if the future of legal practice is in the hands of these kids, we’ll be OK.
The opportunity of networking is not just for the students, however.
Whether it is at a reception sponsored by a leading law firm in Paris, or at a karaoke bar on a Goan beach, the professionals and the coaches who are often faculty members, get to network and collaborate.
Students enhance their profiles but so too do the law schools
Sponsorship opportunities allow law firms to connect with the professionals and the students, and universities put themselves on the map when it comes to firms and organisations seeking graduates with the right sets of skills.
Being placed in such a competition brings high accolades not just to the individual students but also to the law school from which they come and who support their students in their journey. Trophies are borne home with pride and the law school gets the opportunity to show prospective students and their parents that they offer that little bit more when it comes to skills education and preparing their students for real life as a lawyer. Some competitions, particularly those in India, are also hosted by universities who get to showcase their facilities and courses, and build collaboration and partnerships with other institutions.
For the professionals, as fun as it is to see the thought leaders of tomorrow honing their skills, it is also an opportunity to network and boost their own professional profiles. The ICC do dish out some very lucrative mediations, and competitions are a great opportunity to meet potential sources of work.
So students learn real skills and make themselves more attractive to employers, universities get to set themselves apart from the competition and fill an often glaring hole in the curriculum, sponsoring law firms get to attract skilled trainees, and professionals get to share their knowledge, eat and drink well and walk on the beach during the lunch break – the definition of a win-win situation.
Every law school should pay attention to the signals that the popularity of these competitions are sending – alternative dispute resolution is here to stay and students will go the extra mile to show they have the necessary skills to practice in the 21st Century. They should be encouraged and supported.
So get on the plane to Paris, Vienna, Goa, Buenos Aires and get mediating.