A room full of the world’s best physicists, chemists and biologists could be gathered to talk about climate change. But, if lawyers aren’t in the room, Texas A&M School of Law Dean Robert Ahdieh says they will not find a viable solution.
Law is the framework that shapes and defines policy, he said. And for that reason, it’s important to him that the law school is a space to talk about difficult issues so the school can graduate better lawyers.
Some of those issues include climate change, immigration, financial panics or terrorism. Ahdieh believes that at its best, a law school becomes the natural convener for the community to sit down and engage in a complex issue and find solutions for them.
“What we really teach in law school rather than maybe anything else is complex problem- solving,” Ahdieh said. “Who are all the stakeholders? What are the relevant facts? And then you see, how can we reconstruct all of that in the shadow of the law or using the law? How can we put all that back together in a way that’s more just or more equitable, or more efficient?”
Professor Nancy Welsh, who also is the director of the Aggie Dispute Resolution Program, said the faculty is diverse in its academic language, with each professor specializing in some different field of dispute resolution.
The law has many complex branches of dispute resolution, such as negotiation, mediation and arbitration. Lawyers are exploring problem-solving in more innovative ways today, Welsh said.
Having a diverse faculty helps prepare the students, because they can get concentrations in different areas of dispute resolution that future employers appreciate.
Students need to learn about the conflicts presented in the discussions and how to facilitate conversation about issues, Welsh said.
The skills students learn help them become more empathic lawyers who are better listeners. One of the key skills is reflective listening, which is giving someone a chance to speak and accurately reflect back what they said and ask if they’re correct, Welsh said.
“Part of doing it well is being truly curious about what the person has said,” she said. “Which can be really hard — especially if you’re in the midst of real conflict — to maintain curiosity, rather than just assuming that the other person is wrong.”
Students also learn how to ask open-ended questions, such as why a person got involved in the issue they are trying to resolve, Welsh said. All the techniques students are learning help them become better communicators and listeners.
“Within the field of dispute resolution, there’s increasing recognition that not every dispute is going to end up being nicely and neatly resolved,” she said. “And sometimes, what you’re trying to do is just to be sure that there’s clarity, complete with listening to each other, even if you’re not ultimately going to agree.”
The skills are vital for law students, Welsh said. Fewer than 2% of civil cases actually make it to federal trial; most are solved with dispute resolution.
Aside from just classroom discussions, groups of all kinds come to the campus for these discussions. While the Covid-19 pandemic has limited this, a diverse group of speakers have visited the campus.
One of Ahdieh’s favorite examples of the diversity of thought at the school is one day a sheriff’s association was a guest and two days later a cannabis growers’ group was there. He said if they had been there on the same day, it would have been the perfect opportunity to come up with a resolution — which is the point.
If you go:
What: The Renaissance of Women in Dispute Resolution
Who: Several panelists from a variety of law schools sponsored by Texas A&M School of Law
When: March 4, full-day symposium; March 5, half-day
Where: This is a hybrid event via Zoom or at the School of Law
While these symposiums are important to the community and valuable to students, it’s all about training better lawyers. A good law education, Ahdieh said, is as much about what happens outside the classroom as inside it.
Ahdieh is able to draw on his own experience for these discussions and lessons. One example he gave is when he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and worked on a case that was decades in the making. The case involved a man suing the U.S. government on a claim of discrimination.
He called the man on the phone and spoke with him for a while and finally told the man there were four people involved in the case and two were dead, one could not be found and another had advanced Alzheimer’s disease. He told the plaintiff it was unlikely the Justice Department would be able to find for sure if there was discrimination.
But then he told the plaintiff, “If you were discriminated against in this situation, I want to apologize on behalf of this agency, on behalf of the Department of Justice, on behalf of the entire federal government.”
The plaintiff withdrew the complaint. “All this guy wanted was an apology,” he said.
“I use this with my students to teach. I wasn’t lacking in litigation skills; it wasn’t that I wasn’t a good trial lawyer,” Ahdieh said. “But, at the end of the day, your job is to focus on the last piece. Your job as a good lawyer is to resolve disputes, right? Sometimes that involves winning, and sometimes that involves acknowledging the middle ground between them winning and you winning.”
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.