Community outreach: Center for Conflict Resolution­ helping lawyers and clients resolve disputes without going to war

When practicing family law, attorney Suzi Schrader battled with opposing counsel every day in court or in negotiations. She fought for the best outcome for her clients. "It felt like every day was a war," Schrader explains. "In many cases, I began to wonder if there was a different way."

Schrader found an alternative when she learned about the Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR), a not-for-profit corporation that provides free mediation services to the residents of Cook County.

That was five years ago. Today, Schrader is a private mediator and Director of Volunteer Development at the Center for Conflict Resolution.

With support from the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association, CCR handled its first case in 1979. Currently, CCR relies on a staff of 12 and the assistance of more than 130 volunteers to mediate more than 2,000 cases each year. Its mission is to work with individuals, communities, courts and other institutions to manage and resolve conflict.

Mediation is designed to help people find their own solutions to their conflicts before a judge imposes one. Each session is facilitated by a trained impartial third person (the mediator). The mediator ensures the parties communicate their concerns, realistically think through their situations, generate options and have the opportunity to reach a mutually satisfying agreement.

"The most rewarding part of mediating is the chance to empower people to resolve their own disputes and to provide a forum where people are able to repair broken relationships, whether it is between co-workers, business partners, family members, friends, or neighbors," Schrader stated. "Mediation adds another tool for attorneys to use in seeking to meet the needs of their clients."

As mediation progressed into a significant method of resolving disputes, CCR, with its 22 years of experience, has become recognized as one of the nation's premiere providers of mediation services and for its mediation skills training. In addition to providing the basic techniques needed to mediate disputes, the performance-based mediation skills training enhances the skills used by attorneys in their practices and in their interactions outside of work.

Jennifer Nijman, a partner at Winston & Strawn and an environmental lawyer, participated in CCR's Mediation Skills Training last March. "The training gave me the opportunity to practice my listening, questioning, problem-solving and negotiation skills and receive incredible feedback from experienced mediator/coaches," she said. "I now incorporate what I learned in the training into negotiations with opposing counsel and even with my children and husband."

CCR volunteers who complete the intensive 32-hour training and certification process mediate more than 90 percent of the cases that come to CCR. Judges of the Circuit Court of Cook County refer the majority of CCR's cases. These cases include small claims matters, eviction cases, criminal misdemeanor cases and disputes between divorce attorneys and clients over attorney fees.

CCR also receives juvenile offender and victim cases from the States Attorney's office, employment discrimination cases from the Illinois Department of Human rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment cases from the City of Chicago, and cases from the Illinois Commerce Commission and the City Department of Administrative Hearings. Additionally, anyone can call CCR. If they qualify and all the parties are willing to participate, CCR will mediate the conflict.

This past spring, CCR launched its newest program, the Community Consensus Project. Through this initiative, CCR provides expert mediators to assist local governments, advocacy groups and community organizations involved in public conflicts.

Each of CCR's programs allows volunteers the opportunity to explore the different outlets of the mediation field while reaching the community through a unique avenue.

"CCR has provided me with another way to give back to our community by volunteering as a mediator," Nijman remarked. "I am impressed with the opportunities CCR gives people and its ongoing commitment to the community."

For more information on the Center for Conflict Resolution programs or volunteer opportunities, please call 312/922-6464.

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October 2001Volume 7Number 1