By Benjamin Hecht, J.D. ’18
Communications Director, Harvard Mediation Program
In law school, especially as 1Ls, we are convinced that being a law student means certain things. Our role models—professors, impressive alumni, upperclassmen—define the experience as revolving around specific markers of prestige. Clerking. Journals. Ames. And, perhaps most of all, arguing before a judge in court. That being a lawyer means litigating is reinforced by everything from movies and television to our casebooks themselves; when we learn the law almost entirely through appellate opinions, the lesson becomes that lawyering means standing before a panel of robed figures.
But for me, the most important thing I’ve learned at Harvard Law School is that I was all wrong.
Litigation plays an outsized role in how society attempts to solve problems. To be sure, court-talking lawyers are important, but they are just one of many types. The modern field of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has grown in response to the shortcomings of litigation, particularly the cost, time, and dissatisfying results symptomatic of court-imposed outcomes.
From my early days here, the Harvard Mediation Program (HMP) stood out as a way to answer a nagging question about the legal system and to help me achieve one of my main law school goals. The question was this: why does litigation sometimes seem so dissatisfying? The answer: because it often is. Every law student reads cases where the outcome just isn’t “right,” whether because it seems divorced from common sense or because a sympathetic party gets the short end of the stick.
Mediating with HMP has taught me there are other options. Parties working together within a flexible, collaborative process can arrive at win-win solutions that are less likely to emerge through the blunt instrument of litigation. In a low cost, neutral setting, people can share concerns, discover what makes the other party tick, and better understand what interests underlie their own positions.
Abraham Lincoln said it best: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser—in fees, and expenses, and waste of time. As a peace-maker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”
HMP has also helped me fulfill one of my top goals for law school: to acquire the “soft” skills I think are critical to being a lawyer—and to growing as a person. HMP members get exceptional training in how to listen, help speakers feel comfortable and heard, identify the forces animating disputes, and encourage sustainable outcomes. It’s gratifying to see parties respond to the skills I learned by opening up, recognizing each other’s views, and seeking common ground. As a mediator, it has been incredibly rewarding and empowering to talk through problems with people and help them realize a solution. I’ve had people hug me with tears in their eyes after a mediation, which is a grounding reminder of the “real world” after spending so much time in the HLS bubble.
HMP training also has value beyond the mediation context; it informs my every day life more than anything else I’ve learned in Cambridge. Mediation skills are a great way to improve interactions with friends, family, partners, colleagues, and even casual acquaintances. The “pop science” literature is rich with discussions of how showing real interest in others (rather than waiting for our own turns to speak) strengthens relationships and leads to success. And you know what? It’s true.
HMP is an amazing community of people, a terrific place to learn valuable skills, and a wonderful way to give back to the community by helping real people solve real problems.