Teach 21st Century Skills

Teach our law students 21st Century Skills. This was the message emerging from a recent conference I spoke at on ADR in Legal Education held by Maastricht University, Faculty of Law.

Few would argue that an understanding of ADR skills should not form part of a modern law degree. The changing legal landscape has, over the past 28 years, seen the decline of traditional routes for recourse and the emergence of more practical and less expensive alternatives. With ADR firmly part of our legal system, newly trained law graduates and practitioners need to be familiar with these processes, the benefits and how and when they should be used. Moreover, the teaching of ADR presents us with an opportunity to expose our graduates to an invaluable, but at present greatly undervalued skill set: active listening, communication, empathy and understanding – the so-called ‘soft skills’. A recent study by Google of its employees found that: “the best teams … exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity, empathy and emotional intelligence”.[1] But, the benefits of these extend far beyond the individual and commercial spheres. Increasingly our society is becoming more and more divided and these skills, if more commonplace would go a long way to help combat the fissures opening up between socio-economic, political and religious groups.

ADR should be part of a well-rounded legal education, on that we agree, but what would that entail? As a foundation, students need to know what ADR actually is. This involves firstly being aware of the different terminology and processes and the differences within them. Too often we still encounter basic misunderstandings around what mediation and arbitration are, for example: “So at the end of the mediation, the mediator will issue a decision?”! There needs to also be an awareness of the benefits and appropriateness of ADR. Equally, a legal education would be remiss if it didn’t encompass the legal aspects to ADR, for example in England and Wales, mediation’s role in the Civil Procedural Rules and key cases such as Dunnett v Railtrack.

Building on this, one could press for a deeper understanding of the spectrum of ADR and an intimate appreciation for the different forms even within traditional labels of mediation and arbitration and how they can potentially interact.

How ADR is taught from an academic and theoretical standpoint is only one side of the coin. Akin to mooting and debating, the practical application of ADR is essential in developing a more comprehensive understanding of the skills and process. Competitions, such as the ICC Mediation Competition and the National Mediation Competition (United Kingdom) not only put mediation on the map, but provide a great stage for the learning, appreciation and commercially real application of core ADR skills. They also demonstrate, even in a simulated environment the inherent value of mediation, something law students will carry with them throughout their career. Moreover, CEDR has long been providing Mediation Advocacy Skills Training for lawyers targeted at a spectrum of practitioners from trainees to seasoned litigators. This teaches lawyers how to manage the process, from initiating a mediation and preparing for the day (documentation, team roles, overall strategy, opening statements) through to how to get the most out of the process (negotiation and bargaining skills, effective exploration and reaching settlement). As the use of ADR continues to rise and diversify, we need our legal graduates and professionals to be well versed in these processes from an academic and practical perspective in order to best represent clients, further positive changes in the legal landscape and be successful in their careers.

Universities have a large part to play in advancing the knowledge and use of ADR and many institutions have already made tremendous strides in this direction, but the torch cannot be carried by them alone. CEDR’s partner organisation in New York, the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR) runs Y-ADR for ADR professionals under 45, promoting the full spectrum of dispute resolution mechanisms with the younger generation of lawyers, providing support, seminars and networking opportunities. Additionally, in 2017 CEDR launched and ran its first New Dialogues programme, teaching young and emerging leaders in business and the community, communication, conflict management, negotiation and leadership skills. These initiatives and those such as the CEDR and the University of Law run National Student Negotiation Competition and many more, contribute to a changing culture of dispute resolution that brings dialogue to the fore and leaves behind overly aggressive, antiquated attitudes and styles. This grassroots change is taking place across the globe, in the legal sector, business, academic institutions and our communities. More and more, people are recognising the value of effective communication, empathy and a desire to understand and improve the way we manage conflict.

Teach our law students … no, teach all our students 21st Century Skills. My takeaway from the conference in Maastricht and my experience in the ADR field thus far has cemented by belief in the inherent value of ADR skills both on a professional and personal level. We all encounter conflict on a regular basis be it with a colleague, a neighbour, a friend, a family member or a business partner, therefore, why restrict the teaching of soft skills to law students. We should strive to provide all, regardless of their educational and career choices, the opportunity to learn and benefit from these invaluable skills.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/12/20/the-surprising-thing-google-learned-about-its-employees-and-what-it-means-for-todays-students/?utm_campaign=buffer&utm_content=bufferb9352&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_term=.090816da1732

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