Q&A session with one of the region’s leading mediators

Professor John Wade                  

John Wade is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand’s (AMINZ) annual conference in Queenstown in August. An emeritus Professor of Law at Bond University, he is also a Foundation visitor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. He has served on the Family Law Council on Mediation (1988-1992), the Australian Law Reform Commission on the “Adversary System” (1997-1998) and the Queensland Law Society ADR Committee (2008-2014).

Additionally, he has conducted more than 6500 hours of mediations, led more than 250 mediation- and arbitration-training courses for Bond University’s Dispute Resolution Centre, and also individually for 5000 legal practitioners, judges and other professionals in Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Zealand and the USA. Here, he speaks to Law News about his experiences.

Professor Wade, you’ve led more than 250 courses in mediation and negotiation for law firms, government and industry. What’s the theme that gets the greatest purchase with such diverse audiences?

There are many themes that repeat internationally: How can I get a job as a mediator? What unpaid apprenticeships are available to improve my skills? Mediators in my district use separate rooms and carry messages – why is this so dominant? It seems to be very clumsy and lawyer-centric? To what extent can my substantive expertise (say, in banking, building, family law or dynamics) be useful, or a problem, for a mediator? How much preparation should a mediator do with each party? What kind of preparation?

What are you looking to focus on here in New Zealand?

I plan to share some of my knowledge and mistakes as a negotiator and mediator with participants. The sharing is organised into many learning modules, long and short. Participants can pick and choose what parts of this learning confirm, contradict or add to what they already “know” in their heads, or in their professional practices.

Among the areas you specialise in is succession planning, which is something a number of observers have said New Zealand could do better in. What, briefly, is your current take on the subject?

Every country can do better at succession planning. There are a few excellent specialised practices around, especially in certain farming communities. But it requires a brave and determined family to sign up for such a process of self-examination about what is important to each family member.

Family law, of course, is another area of expertise. Have you followed the recent changes to the New Zealand system?

I have had various experiences teaching Family Court judges, and family lawyers in New Zealand as mediators, and also training a group of those judges to be mediator trainers. But I have not kept up with changes in family law in New Zealand, which I guess may be as volatile as the scene in Australia, where I was head of a body of judges and others between 2008-2010 that advised the federal Attorney-General in Australia about changes to family law. This was a learning experience for me in the politics of law reform.

If mediation is self-evidently a good and useful thing for the Family Courts, why has it taken so long for government planners to see this?

Well, in all societies, there is a bottomless pit of “needy” people. No matter how many helping agencies are established – counseling, legal, mediation, medical – if those agencies are cheap, competent and accessible, they will soon be swamped with clients. This is disappointing for governments who hope that a new service, such as mediation, will shorten queues to other skilled helpers, especially expensive helpers such as courts.

Why do you think a greater presence of mediators in the family law system is better idea than, let’s say, a larger presence of psychiatrists?

Psychiatrists are more expensive, less in number, and arguably not as short-term result-focused as most mediators. Additionally, some professions are skilled at working with individuals and their personal brokenness, whereas mediators must also work predominantly with groups. Also, politicians hope that multiple mediators will keep more people out of expensive court lists and thereby appoint fewer judges. Which may be a vain hope. But I emphasise what you already know, that diagnostically, many people who come to mediators (or to lawyers, doctors or financial advisers!) would also be assisted by psychiatric or personal counseling, if they had the time, money, cultural comfort and courage to do so. I think this is one of the fascinating functions of a mediator, or any other skilled helper, namely to attempt to diagnose possible causes and appropriate interventions for conflict.

What led you into mediation?

In my work as a lawyer, I noticed a number of legal practitioners who had remarkable diplomacy skills. I watched them work miracles. I wondered where they gathered those skills, as I certainly did not have them by either nature or nurture. However, I was quickly convinced that these skills were profoundly helpful to clients in trouble, and to society. Much later I was invited to open a “mediation” conference. I did not know if this was a misprint for “meditation” or “medication”. I stayed on at that conference and watched amazed as some of the mediators present demonstrated exactly the same diplomacy skills, as I had seen in these much admired senior lawyers. I was hooked as I realised that these skills could be learned by a person like me.

Are you as passionate about it now as you were then?

Yes. However, the form of mediation I use is very intense and requires stamina. Like many helping professions, it requires empathy with people at profoundly difficult stages of their lives. I am glad to be able to pass the important helping torch to many others – and to spend more time playing with my grandchildren.

Do you see it as a profession or an art?

Both. Some neophyte mediators start with “7 out of 10” due to what God and their parents contributed. Others like me start at “2 out of 10”, but are avid learners. Both groups can benefit from a “professional association”, despite all the well-documented dark sides of professionalism.

John Wade will be presenting at the AMINZ Conference, Queenstown, 28-30 August 2014 and also conducting a MasterClass in Queenstown on 31 August 2014. For more information please visit www.aminz.org.nz.

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