By Katie Koch
Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conflict Resolution Homeless Intervention Project

Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the case of the UW Law Mediation Clinic, the mother of a fruitful new partnership with the local courts.

As COVID-19 forced institutions around the country to reallocate resources and adjust mindsets to an all-new, mostly virtual world, the Mediation Clinic found a way to get students hands-on experience mediating real legal disputes — all via Zoom.

For years, students in UW Law’s Mediation Clinic have spent every Thursday of their winter quarter mediating small claims cases in King County District Court as part of a pretrial mediation calendar run by the Dispute Resolution Center of King County (KCDRC).

The arrangement has long served as a way to provide UW Law students real-world experience and to allow them to connect with other volunteer mediators in the Seattle legal community.

But as social-distancing restrictions continued apace into late 2020, it became clear that the court would not be able to get a virtual version of its usual pretrial mediation services up and running by early January. That left Esther Park and Alan Kirtley, both instructors in the Mediation Clinic, with an idea: Why not let UW Law pilot a Zoom mediation calendar?

"The thing that really made it work was the court’s willingness to hand over the Zoom controls to us. It shows what a good relationship we’ve been able to build up with the court."

It proved to be a win-win suggestion. Park, UW Law’s director of externships and the current president of KCDRC’s board of directors, and Kirtley, a longtime KCDRC board member, worked with then-presiding judge The Hon. Susan Mahoney to arrange a weekly docket of small claims cases that students could mediate over Zoom in February and March.

“We had a dozen students who were trained in virtual mediation throughout the fall and who were eager to see cases,” said Kirtley, emeritus associate professor of law. “And the court wanted to keep providing an important service.”

King County’s Small Claims Court has long mandated that parties appear in court and attempt to mediate their disputes — low-value claims ranging from the usual tenant security deposits and car accident damages to more complex tales of broken promises, stolen property, and damaged relationships — before proceeding to trial.

But virtual mediation, which would require litigants to participate by online video or in some cases only by phone, was uncharted territory for the court.

“The thing that really made it work was the court’s willingness to hand over the Zoom controls to us,” Park said. “It shows what a good relationship we’ve been able to build up with the court.”

Building Foundations for the Future

Online mediation has also been critical to ensuring access to justice — whether in its traditional form or in the option of alternative dispute resolution — for pro se filers even as courtrooms remain empty.

The Mediation Clinic played a critical role in helping the court resolve claims that, in some instances, had been stalled since the onset of COVID-19, said King County District Court Judge Joe Campagna, who currently presides over the small claims calendar.

“I was consistently impressed with the professionalism and effectiveness of the UW Law mediators, especially given the challenging circumstances,” Campagna said. “They were able to conduct mediations on crowded calendars in a new virtual courtroom environment, with litigants who often faced language and technology barriers, and were still able to facilitate settlements in a substantial number of our cases.”

Another unexpected upside: clinic students gained a working familiarity with virtual mediation — a tool that, given its cost efficiency, will likely grow in popularity even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

"I was consistently impressed with the professionalism and effectiveness of the UW Law mediators, especially given the challenging circumstances."

“The legal community, because it’s generally an older community, is often a little afraid of technology and making it a normal part of the process,” said Katie Wan, 3L, who plans to practice civil litigation after completing a post-graduate clerkship with the Washington Supreme Court. “But now I’d be more confident advising my clients that we can do mediations virtually, especially if I were representing smaller clients or doing a pro bono case.”

“I don’t think being in a virtual environment detracted from the learning experience,” Wan said. “If anything, it made it more real because you have to flow with the times.

Despite the initial strangeness of convening skeptical parties in Zoom “breakout rooms” to untangle their disputes, students and faculty alike agreed that the underlying job of a mediator remained the same: to help parties communicate and empower them to identify their own points of agreement or compromise that might lead to a workable settlement.

“I was surprised by how effective the [virtual] structure we had was in getting folks to resolve their issues,” said Sean Hyde, 3L. “I learned that the mediator skillset is pretty much always applicable, regardless of whether you’re in a formal mediation setting. It’s important to carry that into whatever you do in life — being a more empathetic person and a better communicator.”