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In Zoom We Trust

My first real-life experience with pandemic-forced online dispute resolution was in early April — a baptism by fire. I coached the New York Law School team at the Willem Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot, held in Vienna annually except this year. Within about ten days’ time, the organizers created the capacity for 40 matches to take place simultaneously, each with three geographically remote arbitrators, four separate oralists, and additional team members observing. To be clear, what was happening was at least seven remote feeds per match, 40 simultaneous matches each tranche, six tranches of 40 matches each per day, for the first four consecutive days of the moot. The first tranche was admittedly a difficult birth, but within a day things were humming along like a sewing machine, on a platform created by Immediation, an Australian concern. I arbitrated four matches and became entirely comfortable serving from my office in New Jersey on a panel with an arbitrator from Berlin and a third from Rio de Janeiro, with student advocates from Mumbai and Paris. Except for some inappropriate features of a mediation platform being repurposed for arbitration (such as a chat function allowing participating parties to speak to arbitrators privately –YIKES!), the whole thing earned the highest possible accolade in the circumstances: it worked!

Since then I’ve conducted three mediations using the Zoom platform, and they have gone exceptionally well. The parties and counsel have been available; they have used the breakout room function strategically; they have expressed trust in the mediator more willingly and with better results; and they seem to have been much more willing to close the file then-and-there than they seem to be when mediations take place face-to-face.

The real zinger, though, has been the dispute resolution public events offered by New York Law School. For the past six years the NYLS ADR Skills Program has offered a series of monthly Continuing Legal Education programs for the New York City community, in the School’s well-appointed Events Center in Tribeca. A low turnout was 20, and a high turnout was 100, depending on whether it snowed, whether the subways were jammed, whether the speakers were well known, whether the topic was of interest, and so on. The March and April 2020 events were rescheduled into May and June, and were to be held online instead of in person, again on the Zoom platform. Registration for the May 14 program exceeds 400, and for the June program over 200 with four weeks to go.

Not just the numbers, either. We have registrants from the United Kingdom, from Hawaii, from California and South Carolina. We had an inquiry from Greece to determine what time it started, Athens time.

(The exact same thing happened in my weekly Quaker Meeting: on an average Sunday we might have ten or so people worshiping. Online we have almost 50% more, including visiting Quakers from Portland, Oregon or Ely, UK.)

Only an idiot would ignore the underlying tectonic shift that these data reveal — It Doesn’t Matter Where You Are Any More! So the School has started a new series of informal conversations with folks we would have killed to offer before, but who were located too far away. Not any more, they aren’t! The guests on this biweekly series of informal conversations will include folks from California, Missouri, New York, Florence, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and so on.

For those in the ADR community who seek to convene leadership, the game has abruptly and favorably changed.

Thomas Friedman made a hit a few years ago, in a book about the globalization of commerce, by observing that The World is Flat. I propose an even more paradigm-shattering reality: For those of us who hope to exchange intellectual and educational information and inspiration, the world is not only not a sphere, it is also not a flat two-dimensional plane. Indeed it isn’t even a line between two points. There is no distance, no remoteness between us any more. Whether in the mediation I conducted last week among people in Connecticut, New York, Iowa and London, or in the CLE event this afternoon with hundreds of registrants, Zoom is showing us every day that the world is a single, primordial, dimensionless point.


F. Peter Phillips

F. Peter Phillips is a commercial arbitrator and mediator with substantial experience providing consultation on the management of business disputes to companies around the globe. A cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College and a magna cum laude graduate of New York Law School, Mr. Phillips served for nearly ten years… MORE >

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