Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fall 2010 Clinical Projects: Restructuring Conflict

This fall, HNMCP has conducted five projects addressing a diverse set of issues in the fields of negotiation and mediation.  HNMCP students have worked on issues related to micro-finance in Egypt, diversity in the legal profession, the protection of low-wealth and minority “heirs’ property” owners, recurring contract negotiations between municipal government and unions, and conflict management within U.S. federal agencies.  Each of HNMCP’s five projects, described below, has provided students with a unique set of challenges.

The rapid growth of the microfinance industry in developing countries has resulted in a proliferation of disputes between borrowers and lenders. Typically, borrowers lack the education and financial resources to access the courts, and lenders see the courts as slow and inefficient. Can an effective alternative to the court system be implemented for the microfinance industry in Egypt to aid the industry and lead to better consumer protection for borrowers?

HNMCP students have worked with the International Development Law Organization’s consumer protection initiative to assess the feasibility of implementing a dispute resolution system in the microfinance market in Alexandria, Egypt. The students have also identified potential forms for such a system and challenges to implementation. In doing so, they have been working directly with stakeholders, including microfinance institutions, borrowers, government agencies, and international organizations.

During the last forty years, law firms have made enormous progress towards creating a legal culture that supports women and minority groups. IILP is dedicated to continuing this progress by fostering a more inclusive and diverse legal profession.

This semester, HNMCP has partnered with IILP and two national law firms to study how they resolve disputes related to or arising from diversity issues in their daily operations. Students have worked to identify strategies that work in practice, not just in theory. Their findings will be distributed directly to the management of the participating law firms and IILP. IILP will use the data to create its own report on how to strengthen inclusion efforts within the legal profession.

The cost of conflict to society can be especially high when it occurs at NIH, the government agency charged with the critical task of enhancing health, lengthening life, and reducing the burdens of illness and disability. This semester, HNMCP students have worked to determine what makes for effective dispute resolution procedures at NIH, and how these procedures can best be evaluated.

HNMCP has been working with NIH’s Office of the Ombudsman (the Office). The Office is a neutral, independent, and confidential resource that provides informal assistance to NIH scientists, administrators, and support staff in addressing work-related issues occurring within the twenty-seven institutes and centers nationwide. Through the use of interviews, survey and focus groups, students have been conducting an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Office. The goal is to provide the Office with desired feedback from the organization it serves and determine whether and how to modify aspects of its practice. While there have been several informal projects and studies conducted by the Office, the Office has not undergone a formal evaluation nor has it received formal feedback from the members of the NIH community since a pilot evaluation in 1998.

This semester, HNMCP students are working to organize and conduct a mediation of an “heirs’ property” dispute for a North Carolina family. Heirs’ property is collectively-owned land that has passed through successive generations of families in which the heirs all have undivided interests. Absent unanimous agreement, heirs cannot make property decisions. As a consequence, collective-action problems and family disputes often cause heirs’ property to be lost through tax foreclosure or forced sales after court proceedings.

In this clinical project, HNMCP is working with the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition (HPRC), a network of nonprofit organizations involved in litigation, advocacy, and scholarship to protect the low-wealth and minority owners of heirs’ property against land loss. The goal is to design and implement a process for mediating a family dispute and salvaging heir’s property.

What could be a more challenging multiparty negotiation than a recurring series of three-year contract negotiations between a municipal government and five separate unions? Add to that a small town context, where town officials, negotiators, and union membership all belong to the same tight-knit community and have a shared desire to maintain strong relationships while protecting their own interests, and the result is a complex and high-stakes negotiating environment.

Students on this project have been working with stakeholders at all levels of the Town of Nantucket’s collective bargaining process. The students’ task is to conduct a stakeholder assessment and identify strategies for creating a more integrative approach to the town’s contract negotiations, one that is consistent with legal constraints but that sets Nantucket apart as a community that can capitalize on value-creating opportunities and find contract solutions that generate mutual gain