We have all worked in bad actual office spaces. These are obvious when unbearably cold; hot and stuffy, or when the coffee is lousy. When ODR is done well, the conferencing technology functions so seamlessly that you will not realize that you are in my virtual office. This is the way we like it with most real offices.
Mediation and Arbitration can both be conducted using video conferencing technology. Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is not some independent set of skills, but it is definitely a skill-set for making mediation and arbitration work when face to face meetings are difficult or impossible to hold.
Here are some situations when you might consider ODR:
For Covering Long Distances
Distance separates many modern families, and that is the most frequent reason to consider ODR in family cases. Online conferencing offers much more than a look at the body language. It can be very much like the in person experience. For example, screen sharing can let people see the same documents simultaneously. Shared "in-conference" word processing can be collaborative, and final documents can be signed online.
For arbitration and decision-making, the audio and video from the conference can be preserved to make a record of the proceedings. The experience is very close to the face to face experience. When people are a day’s drive or an airplane flight away from each other, ODR is cost effective, and also saves considerable travel time.
A speakerphone is no substitute. Video conveys body language in a way that audio simply cannot replicate. While it is true that documents can be emailed back and forth, in a video conference, someone can use online pointers and highlighting tools show precisely what they want you to see in a document. You literally see what they are getting at. With online editing, everyone can take turns typing, and final documents can unfold in front of you on a shared screen.
Protection orders and Personal Safety
It is a thorny issue, but there are cases where parties want to meet despite concerns over domestic violence or personal safety. Online mediation means that parties do not have to come to the same building. Nobody runs the risk of being followed home. Indeed, a carefully chosen background can mean that someone’s physical location can be kept hidden even when they are appearing by video.
The most sophisticated conferencing systems allow for shuttle mediation just as if parties were in separate rooms in the same building. Parties and their own attorneys see each other, but not the other side. It is the mediator who then goes back and forth between virtual rooms. Where the concern is for emotional as well as physical abuse, this keeps everyone safe, yet it allows for settlement opportunities to occur when there is the will to explore them.
Emergencies and Child Abduction
There are some unusual circumstances where an online approach can be particularly useful. Where events are happening fast or spiraling out of control, it is much easier to schedule an online meeting than a face to face sit down session. ODR thus presents the potential for emergency management in fast moving situations.
Sometimes someone has fled the jurisdiction. In interstate and international cases, ODR offers the possibility to talk where legal considerations make any face to face meeting unlikely.
It can be expensive to assemble a room full of clients and lawyers, even when none of the participants have driven more than a few hours. A few hours travel time multiplied by several lawyers is not cheap. Where the success of mediation is doubtful, an initial session might be tried by video, with parties only coming together face to face once things have begun to look promising.
I have put a more detailed comparison of ODR versus face to face meetings on my website.
In ODR, if you find your self on a lumpy chair in a windowless, airless room, that will be a setting you will have chosen, not anyone else. If you also want to smoke, or eat stinky foods, nobody will care, because there is no odor in cyberspace.