Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Days of Dialogue

I have had the opportunity recently to act as a facilitatator at a couple of the Days of Dialogue events taking place in Los Angeles this year. Taking a contentious topic--the future of policing--that has been debated around the nation in a confrontational fashion, this program demonstrates another way the issue can be addressed. The program brings together police officers, community leaders, students, and other interested and affected residents of the city to sit around small tables exchanging ideas and experiences related to how policing is and should be conducted.


The organizers of these dialogues have promoted them as a starting point for action and change. And it's certainly legitimate to view the process of listening and trying to understand different perspectives as a first step in helping to craft better policing practices. But the dialogue could also be viewed as an end in itself. The mere fact that people can engage in reflective communication about a divisive issue is what brings about change. By participating in these kinds of dialogues, we have an opportunity to gain some appreciation of the challenges facing police officers. And police officers have an opportunity to gain a better understanding of how they can be viewed sometimes as protectors and sometimes as threats to the community. Biases can be exposed; historical perspectives can be shared. Just by sitting around tables and talking with random people of different views, we may change more attitudes than can happen when opposing factions only shout at and confront each other.

(But see my post on a black lives matter protest I witnessed this summer, where I argued that carefully-staged confrontations can also be effective in changing attitudes. Protest marches may be needed sometimes to call attention to an issue, but constructive dialogue is also needed to help resolve conflict.)


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blogger vs. WordPress

I recently succumbed to the need to upgrade my main law office website, jcmarkowitz.com, to make it look more professional and up-to-date. My law office site was one I created myself more than 10 years ago using the Blogger platform. About 6 years ago, I created this mediation site myself using Blogger. I still have a lot of affection for Blogger, which has a number of advantages going for it. Blogger is free. It is easy to set up and use. Editing posts, and even changing the layout and the template, is simple and intuitive. And the platform is more versatile than people give it credit for, allowing for some fairly sophisticated possibilities.

On the other hand, Google doesn't seem to have taken much interest in recent years in improving the Blogger platform, and, unless Google has some plans I don't know about, Blogger appears in danger of becoming a relic of the past. Most designers, and most owners of commercial websites, have long ago migrated to WordPress. It seemed like the obvious choice for my revamped website.

WordPress's capabilities seem limited only by the designer's imagination. Though it started as a blogging platform, WordPress now allows an enormous variety of content and layouts, while seamlessly integrating the blogging function anywhere the website owner wants to install it. On the other hand, I find that creating new blog posts in WordPress is more cumbersome than Blogger, and making other changes to the website is more complicated. It is much less "what you see is what you get." It is also less "do it yourself." I needed a professional website designer to create the WordPress site I wanted, and I will probably need help going forward in maintaining the site, unlike my Blogger sites, which I've been able to keep updated without any help.

I had to deal with a related dilemma in creating my new site. Should I integrate this mediation blog with my law office website? Or should I maintain this mediation blog as a separate, stand-alone site?

I lean toward the view that a blog and a commercial website are two different things. A blog is an educational and informational platform presenting the author's views on a relatively narrow topic. It can also be used as a diary or creative outlet for the author. A blog therefore should not be too blatantly promotional. A blog's content should be more article-like than advertisement-like. A commercial website, on the other hand, should function as a business's virtual address. It serves as a calling card and promotional tool for the business. It might need a lot of content to inform the public of all of the business's activities, but it doesn't necessarily need a creative or educational diary to perform its functions.

In the law firm world, I notice that while firms are encouraged to create blogs to show off their expertise and enhance their online visibility, not too many firms are very good at keeping up with producing good blogging content. That may be because blogging is a different task from the main website's task of describing the firm's capabilities, and because not all firms can find somebody in the office who likes doing it.

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Here is my solution to these personal dilemmas and conflicts. At least for the time being, I plan to maintain this "Conflict Resolution" site (mediate-la.com) as my personal platform for sharing ideas on the subject of conflict resolution in general and mediation in particular. For now, this site is going to remain on Blogger because Blogger is so easy to use, and still more of a "pure" blogging platform. Meanwhile my new WordPress site looks up-to-date and flashy. While that site contains occasional blog posts, some cross-posted from here, that will not be the focus of the law office site.

Sometimes to resolve a conflict, like whether you should have pie or ice cream for dessert, you don't have to choose one or the other. You can have both. The only thing you have to decide is whether you want your ice cream on top or on the side.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Teamwork

My rabbi's Rosh Hashanah sermon this year concerned the important topic of healing the widening rifts in the Jewish community, which have broken out especially over the nuclear weapons deal with Iran. The problem he was talking about is not so much that there is disagreement about the advisability of this deal. Considering how troublesome and untrustworthy an adversary Iran has been, one would expect strong disagreements among supporters of Israel about how we should deal with that adversary.

Such disagreements wouldn't be a particularly new thing among members of the Jewish community. As the rabbi pointed out, ferocious conflicts among factions of the Jewish community have existed from the time Joseph fought with his brothers, and on and on through the ages. The resolution and the continuation of these conflicts have defined and often strengthened the Jewish people. Quoting from the scholar Yehudah Bauer, "quarrels and disputes are the engine that drives [our] culture forward, backward or sideways. That is its elixir of life." Or as the Rabbi said: "Add to the mix the fact that we Jews are by nature and nurture an edgy, argumentative, opinionated, critical, and self-critical lot, and the result is conflict."

The danger does not lie in these endless disagreements; it lies with elements on each side of the debate who question the motives of those with whom they disagree. It lies with those who resort to violence instead of debate. And it lies with those who seek to drive conflicting voices out of the community.

Senator Schumer and Congressman
 Nadler happen to have taken opposite
 positions on the Iran deal.
We don't have to agree all the time to preserve the unity of the community. We do have to treat those with whom we disagree as members of the same team, and recognize that all elements of this large, unruly Jewish community share common interests. Otherwise, we are in danger of losing the things that have defined and preserved the community in the first place.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Openings, part 3

In my last post on the topic of how we initiate conflict resolution, I talked about how lawyers frame disputes in a way that may leave out some of the most important concerns of the parties. But the blame for turning a multi-faceted conflict into a contest over legal issues does not lie solely with narrow-minded or selfish lawyers. The parties also bear some responsibility for viewing their dispute in that way.

Most new or potential clients walk into a lawyer's office looking for vindication. They want to talk about the merits right away. They want to know which side is right, and which side is at fault. Since most clients are pre-disposed to believe they are in the right, they are also hoping the legal system will provide that answer for them. Lawyers are pre-disposed to respond in a supportive way, but we usually qualify our answers to some extent, by making statements such as "based on what you are saying, it certainly looks as though you have some strong claims (or defenses)." The lawyer knows there is probably another side to the story, but what clients take away from such responses is the message that they will win.

On the one hand, lawyers have to be empathetic and encouraging, which is necessary not only as a first step toward conflict resolution, but also to show the client that you will be an effective advocate for the client's interests. On the other hand, lawyers need to give clients sound and dispassionate advice about the weaknesses of their position, as well as the costs of pursuing it.

We need to convey to clients that in most cases, no one is ever going to determine which side is right and which side is in the wrong. Most cases are resolved without getting definitive answers to those questions. We also need to make clear that the outcome of a lawsuit usually cannot be predicted with a high degree of certainty.

At the outset of a case, therefore, lawyers might need to steer the conversation away from a discussion about which side is right, and toward some other important considerations such as how much is at stake, what resources each side has to contest the matter, how strongly each side feels about their position, and what underlying problems might be causing the conflict. The answers to those question will often determine how protracted and difficult resolution of the dispute is going to be.

We ought to start off a representation by focusing more on how to bring the dispute to a satisfactory resolution, which in most cases is going to be by negotiated agreement, instead of trying to answer the hypothetical and often unanswerable question of how the case would be decided by a judge or jury.