There’s no denying that the courtroom intrigue and high drama depicted in such popular Hollywood productions as A Few Good Men, … And Justice for All, and Law & Order is quite alluring. There’s also no denying that these depictions aren’t exactly representative of how the law plays out in the real world, where most litigation in the 21st century doesn’t advance to the courtroom.
“People who go to law school may view litigation the way it’s conveyed in movies and TV shows, which is that lawyers spend a lot of time in court,” says Jean Sternlight, the Michael and Sonja Saltman professor of law at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. “But the truth of the matter is that very few cases actually go to court these days.”
Which is precisely the reason why UNLV Law offers a Dispute Resolution Concentration, which launched last year and teaches students how to be effective lawyers and client advocates in a legal environment that’s different today than it was in past generations.
“What we’re hoping to do in this concentration, in short, is prepare students for the real world they will face when they become litigators,” says Sternlight, who in addition to being a faculty supervisor for the Dispute Resolution Concentration is the director of the school’s Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution. “Students will become adept at interviewing and counseling clients, [and in] negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.”
Of course, courtroom litigation is still a crucial skill, one that remains part of any law school’s curriculum, including Boyd’s. However, the reality is we now live in a time where the majority of a lawyer’s work involves negotiating at a conference-room table or presenting a case before an arbitrator rather than arguing in front of a judge.
“Being a lawyer is all about resolving disputes or preventing them from happening in the first place,” says Lydia Nussbaum, a UNLV law associate professor who is part of the Dispute Resolution Concentration’s faculty. “No matter what area of practice a student goes into, they will find clients with problems that need resolution.
“I think Boyd students want to learn more than black-letter law and want to understand how lawyering looks in real life, and that means being a dispute resolver.”
Robin Gonzales certainly is one UNLV Law student who would echo that statement. He gravitated toward the Dispute Resolution Concentration after experiencing a lot of religious and socio-political conflicts growing up in the southern Philippines.
“I became comfortable with high-stress situations and became comfortable with conflicts, which led me to be fascinated with what causes them and how to resolve them,” says Gonzales, who is in his third year at Boyd and slated to earn his J.D. in May 2019. “The Dispute Resolution Concentration has broadened my interest and understanding of conflict resolution and has helped me hone my skills in the resolution part of conflict resolution.
“Most legal cases settle in one way or the other, so as law students, we’re missing out on learning valuable skills that we will eventually need to use if we don't learn some aspects of dispute resolution.”
Gonzales notes that he has benefited greatly from the hands-on experiences offered through the concentration, be it mediating family cases or arbitrating parking disputes. Those real-world opportunities also extend to the law school’s Mediation Clinic, where students serve an important role by helping to facilitate settlement negotiations as neutral third-party participants.
“This is a unique role that provides law students a learning experience they will find nowhere else in law school,” says Nussbaum, the clinic’s director. “Rather than advocating for one side against another, students learn to see all sides of a dispute; rather than advising and counseling a client, students must reserve their judgments and use communication skills to help both parties articulate and pursue their own interests; and, rather than focusing exclusively on legal disputation, students see, firsthand, the complex human dynamics that drive legal disputes and that ultimately can lead to their resolution.”
In addition to offering Boyd students a chance to practice the art of dispute resolution in a tangible way, Nussbaum points out that the Mediation Clinic serves as a valuable resource for all Clark County citizens—that includes giving clients an up-close look at the benefits of settling a disagreement outside of a courtroom.
“First of all, the mediations are free. And second, mediation offers many litigants an important opportunity to sit down, talk, and see whether they can work out their dispute on their own,” Nussbaum says. “For many individuals, having a say in how their case is resolved, rather than relying on a judge to decide, is an empowering and satisfying experience.”