Mediation Gaining Traction among Legal Services Attorneys

Antoinette Delruelle speaks to the group during a training session.

Antoinette Delruelle speaks to the group during a training session.

On October 28th, the New York State Unified Court System, NYLAG and Legal Services NYC kicked off a unique three-day mediation training program for legal services attorneys.

The program was spearheaded by NYLAG attorney Antoinette Delruelle. Delruelle has been a mediator since 2009 and an attorney since 1994, and is currently the president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York. In 2013, she founded NYLAG’s Mediation Project – the first such program at a New York City legal services organization. A former litigator, Delruelle believes passionately that low-income New Yorkers should have the option to choose mediation to resolve certain disputes, and take advantage of the many benefits it has over litigation.

“Mediating a divorce or custody case is far less expensive and time consuming than litigating the same case, which means it has the potential to help many more people. For low-income families in need of free legal assistance, service providers are able to help only a few, usually by referring them to pro bono litigators. The rest, of course, are forced to litigate without counsel,” said Delruelle. “Beyond the practical considerations, because mediation is a more flexible process, it allows people to communicate their goals, and find solutions that parties can live with more comfortably – where children are concerned this is especially important.”

Left to Right: Jack Himmelstein, Antoinette Delruelle and Daniel Weitz

Left to Right: Jack Himmelstein, Antoinette Delruelle and Daniel Weitz.

In addition to Delruelle, two other mediation experts joined her as trainers: Daniel Weitz, the Unified Court System’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Coordinator and Deputy Director for the Division of professional and Court Services; and Jack Himmelstein, Co-founder of the Center for Understanding in Conflict, a national nonprofit that trains lawyers and other professionals in mediation. Ten experienced mediators also helped by sharing their expertise and giving feedback to the attorneys who were trained through a series of role plays.

The training program was designed to help attorneys view conflict in a new way. Participants learned how to frame the interests of both sides, develop options to address individual interests, and learn to understand different views. The session began by dispelling common misperceptions about what mediation is and how it works.

“Most people think mediation forces people to make decisions they later regret, when in fact, if done properly, mediation results in a more satisfying outcome for everyone,” said Delruelle. “Divorce is always painful, but mediation is a gentler, more personal experience. Mediation is like surgery with anesthesia – it’s a lot less painful,” said Delruelle.

Antoinette Delruelle (left) with Brenna DeVanney (right).

Antoinette Delruelle (left) with Brenna DeVaney (right).

One participant in the training program not affiliated with a legal services agency was Brenna DeVaney, Pro Bono Counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slates, Meagher, & Flom LLP. Skadden has long encouraged its attorneys to choose whatever pro bono work they truly care about, and along the way acquire skills that will enhance the work they are doing in their practices. The firm recently began offering practice groups the opportunity to select from a number of pro bono options and choose one or several projects to work on together to build expertise and a sense of community.

“Many of our lawyers were immediately attracted to the idea of mediation. They felt that being familiar with and acquiring mediation skills would be very transferable to their work with clients, and a great way to work with NYLAG to expand their impact on the lives of families in need,” said DeVaney. “In all, 13 lawyers from the firm have already signed on, and while they are a step or two away from taking on cases, they have received mediation training from Antoinette, will soon be trained in family law by another NYLAG attorney – and can’t wait to get started.”

To achieve the best outcomes in mediated settlements, Delruelle is encouraging New York City’s legal services community to adopt a common model that requires that each party who is mediating benefits from the counsel and advice of an outside consulting attorney. She looks forward to the day when there will be a cadre of attorneys who recognize the value of mediation, agree to serve as consulting attorneys in each other’s mediation cases, and function as a citywide mediation network that accepts referrals from each other and from the courts. Given the reactions of those who attended, she is off to a very good start.

Mediation Project Training Program Group“I could not believe what I heard at the end of the training. These attorneys, who are so experienced in litigation, really had their minds changed about mediation. They were willing to say ‘I never knew mediation could touch the parties – the way that it touched me, as a participant in a training program – in such a deep way.’ And it was moving for me because I have worked with many of these attorneys in the past, and training this group in particular, is like building a bridge in my work between what I used to do and what I do now, but always with the same goal of giving low-income people a voice.”