Wednesday, September 07, 2016

          Learning the Art of Impartiality at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission

          The Mediation Clinic’s partnership with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission offers UC Hastings students interested in social justice issues the opportunity to explore the world of mediation, where focused impartiality, rather than zealous advocacy, reigns supreme.

          Sample alt tag.
          Prof. Gail Silverstein, Matthew Oglander (HRC staff), Jacob Bothamley (3L), Noah Frigault (HRC Staff, UCH 2013), Bianca Polovina (HRC staff, UCH 2011), Prof. Carol Izumi (missing from photo Maryam Rangwala, 3L).

          When UC Hastings students remove their advocacy hats for the Mediation Clinic, they help make a real-world difference in the lives of San Francisco residents.

          While most law school classes are taught with an eye towards client representation, Mediation Clinic students serve as neutral third parties mediating discrimination complaints filed by individuals with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the executive agency in charge of enforcing the city’s and county’s antidiscrimination laws.

          The complaints referred by the Human Rights Commission to the Mediation Clinic generally involve housing, employment, disability and public accommodation discrimination. Under the supervision of Professor Carol Izumi, who directs the clinic, and Professor Gail Silverstein, students work in pairs to help disputants resolve their conflicts. Students also benefit from the mentoring, guidance and feedback of two UC Hastings alumni who work for the Human Rights Commission, Bianca Polovina ’11 and Noah Frigault ’13.

          For Izumi, the conflict resolution skills the students acquire through the intensive combination of experiential fieldwork and academics are simultaneously invaluable and somewhat counterintuitive. “As lawyers, we’re used to taking sides and looking at the issues from an advocate’s point of view. The challenge with mediation is that the students must remain impartial and empathize with both sides.”

          3L Maryam Rangwala, who participated in the clinic last semester, experienced this test first-hand. “I walked into the clinic believing that emotion work was distracting and counterproductive to solving legal issues. However, after a few classes, I learned that empathy is perhaps the most important part in helping parties achieve settlement.” The clinic also helped Rangwala confront her biases and minimize their impact on her work as a mediator.

          Students who are interested in mediation must also be willing to set aside their desire to control outcomes, since it’s a field that involves party self-determination. Unlike traditional litigation or arbitration, where others decide the fate of a case, mediators essentially cede the spotlight to the parties in dispute, who reach results they’ve negotiated themselves.

          Polovina has served as a discrimination investigator and mediator for the Human Rights Commission since 2013. “It’s a pleasure to work with current UC Hastings students who bring fresh energy, perspective, and curiosity to the work. I enjoy watching them grow and mature as people and as attorneys-to-be,” Polovina commented.

          That growth and maturation were not lost on 3L Jacob Bothamley, who also participated in the clinic last semester. “I learned how to take a confusing and disjointed set of facts, isolate the important information and use that information to synthesize solutions to help people resolve their problems.”

          After several mediations, Bothamley realized that “emotion is often blinding.” Even when solutions are obvious, parties are sometimes incapable of seeing the forest for the trees because anger and resentment cloud their perspectives. Managing those conflicts was both difficult and rewarding for Bothamley.

          Frigault, who joined the Human Rights Commission last year as a policy analyst, described growing up in a “fairly racist, sexist and xenophobic place,” and said it took leaving there, going to UC Hastings and working on social justice issues to realize how far behind he’d been. “I now have more of a sense of the common equity issues of our time.” Describing his Human Rights Commission work, Frigault remarked, “I love that my job is different every day and that I get to be creative and challenged in ways I wouldn’t have expected.”

          As Rangwala enters her final year of law school and mulls over her career options, her experience at the Mediation Clinic is not far from her thoughts. She recognizes that in addition to resolving disputes, mediation can also salvage relationships, which has important societal benefits. She also appreciates the impact the clinic has had on her personally. “It was helpful to discuss, think about and unpack issues of race, bias, gender and identity prior to entering the professional world. I am better for having had these discussions and have a stronger moral compass to guide me.”

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