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A Creative Thinker: An Interview with Jack W. Cooley

A Personal Career Path

Gini: Good morning, Jack. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us. What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

Jack: In 1977, after serving a few years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago, I was asked by the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit if I was interested in returning to the court (I had been a law clerk there) to be the Court’s first Senior Staff Attorney. He explained that I would supervise a central staff of attorneys and, together with another judge on the Court, would conduct a procedural and settlement conference program which would be part of an effectiveness study being undertaken by the Federal Judicial Center. It sounded to me like a very interesting opportunity, so I accepted the offer. Shortly after I was appointed to the position, I was also asked to head up a committee of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association called the Alternatives to Federal Litigation Committee. I was asked to prepare a report concerning the possible use of mediation and arbitration in resolving cases in the district courts of the Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). I didn’t know much at all about mediation and arbitration at the time, so I launched a self-education project, reading everything I could get my hands on regarding the topics, and contacting the providers and proponents of mediation and arbitration services. Some of the organizations I came in contact with were the American Arbitration Association, the Community Relations Service of the Justice Department, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution. I learned a lot about what was later to be called ADR in this self-education process at the same time I was earning my wings as a novice mediator in the Court’s fledgling settlement conference program.

One by-product of the Alternatives to Federal Litigation Committee report was that several of the district judges began to use mediators from the Community Relations Service of the Justice Department to assist in the resolution of complex community disputes that had languished for sometimes years on the district court dockets.

Early in my career I gained a deep respect for the power of mediation to bring people together and to expedite the resolution of conflict.

G: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

J: Yes. I would have pursued the same career. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I discovered ADR early in my career. I found the litigation alternative to be ineffective and frustrating. As a mediator, I can help people settle their differences, – sometimes by helping them see and apply creative means to obtain mutually beneficial solutions. Being a mediator is a very satisfying profession. Without exaggerating, I think I have the best job in the world!

G: What is the best advice that you have been given? And what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

J: The best advice I have received was given to me by Richard Salem, a nationally recognized expert in the mediation field and the person with whom I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach the “Alternatives to Litigation” course at Loyola Law School in Chicago in the early 1980s. From my very first conversation with Dick, he told me that listening – especially active listening – was the mediator’s most important tool. Being able to teach with Dick was like getting a graduate degree in mediation, because he would not only model listening techniques in “fish bowl” exercises in class, but he would also demonstrate other highly effective mediator techniques as well. After having mediated now for 30 years, I can confirm that Dick’s advice about active listening was right on target. I would advise a budding conflict resolution specialist, in addition to learning how to listen effectively, to become an full-time (formal or informal) student of psychology. Practically everything a mediator does is psychology-based. I would also advise a person to study the techniques of creative problem solving. Many potential creative solutions in mediation are left on (or under) the table because the mediator and the parties to a dispute simply are unaware of creative thinking techniques. I would also advise the person to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the use of metaphor in conflict resolution.

Conflict Resolution Heroes

Gini: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

Jack: I would have to say that my conflict resolution hero is Richard Salem. In Chicago recently we had the opportunity to honor Dick in his fortieth year as a mediator and mediation and negotiation trainer. It was amazing to recall that Dick was the mediator in some of the most publicized conflicts of the last century – including Wounded Knee, the Kent State Incident, and the Nazi Skokie clash. Of course, Dick didn’t sit on his laurels after that. He went numerous times to all parts of Africa teaching mediation to trainers who would then carry the “gospel” of mediation back to their towns and villages. Most recently, he was active in Central America similarly teaching mediation skills and helping people to create a better destiny through conflict resolution.

The Biggest Questions

G: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

J: One major question facing our profession is how to encourage more people of color to become mediators. The second major question is how to ensure that disputants of little financial means can obtain competent legal advice before and during the mediation, if they want it.

G: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

J: I think appropriate informed consent is a major ethical issue facing the conflict management/resolution field. In mediation, facilitation is unsuccessful and the mediator believes he/she must resort to an evaluative approach. The question is when do you explain this to the disputants, and what exactly do you tell them.

Thrills and Spills

G: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist? J: Helping to resolve a class action involving most of the native American tribes in the U. S. against four agencies of the federal government.

G: What was your biggest mistake?

J: Whenever I’ve made a mistake, it was because I made an assumption that was false. Assumptions will kill you.

G: Any regrets?

J: I have no regrets whatsoever.

G: Thank you, Jack.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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