From a very slow start, I am now beginning to transact a some of my business online. I am hoping for continued growth, because I continue to think that ODR works, and that it is good business for law firms and their clients, not just for mediators.
When lawyers don’t have to drive to a mediator’s office, then their clients don’t have to pay their lawyer to travel. If the lawyer can charge a higher rate for legal work, rather than being stuck in traffic, then both the lawyer and client benefit. For me, not having to drive to an in-person mediation means that I have a bit of time to do other things.
It is when distances or protective concerns prevent face to face mediation that online dispute resolution (ODR) really comes into its own. However, I have seen other situations where ODR really saved the day.
Most memorable was the guy whose car broke down on the way to his lawyer’s office. I sent him a link to join a Zoom mediation via his smart phone and then conferenced him into a mediation that way. It was especially memorable for being able to watch the mechanic at work in the background, as the rest of us negotiated the resolution to a court case.
In my other unplanned use of ODR, the breakdown was all my fault: I had mis-calendared. By the time I figured things out, I could not get to the mediation location in time. However, I was able to save the day by bringing everyone into my office by video conference. The mediation was successful, and when the parties wanted a second mediation session, they specifically requested that it be by video.
These have been the unusual situations. Most of the time, I am asked to do a video conference when we either need to cover long distances or keep parties away from each other because of restraining orders.
For Covering Long Distances
Distance separates many modern families, and that is the most frequent reason to use ODR. Video 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 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 to 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 mediate 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.