Alexandra Carter, a professor at Columbia Law School, recently conducted a simulation for the United Nations at which women delegates from 23 countries honed the skills needed for negotiating international peace agreements - in this case the settlement of a fictional conflict involving biological weapons.
At Columbia, Carter advises clinic participants who mediate a wide range of real cases involving commercial, employment discrimination, housing and family disputes. Her efforts are guided by a conviction that an understanding of mediation helps produce "more flexible, innovative lawyers" required by today's issues.
Carter, 36, graduated in 2003 from Columbia, where she took the mediation clinic that she now oversees. Before joining the faculty in 2008, she was an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
Q: Why did you turn from litigation to mediation?
A: I loved litigation. I was proud to work at a firm that provided the highest quality representation, whether to Fortune 500 companies or pro bono clients. However, sometimes being a litigator made me feel limited in the ways I could help people. For example, a famous artist once came to us distraught over a dispute with a longtime collaborator. She described her hopes for their most recent joint project, and her distress at having the partnership collapse. When she finished speaking, we confidently outlined a number of potential legal claims. But at the end of the meeting, I saw by her expression that we had not given her what she really needed, which was a way to resolve things with this colleague so their project could continue. I didn't hear her true interests because I was too busy trying to do what I thought my job was as a litigator.
Now, in my work as a mediation professor, I teach my students how to listen differently, to think beyond legal claims. Everyone knows the saying that when you're a hammer, everything you see is a nail. Put simply, I try to supply my students with a fuller toolbox, so that they can better recognize the complexity of the people and problems around them. The issues of our time require more flexible, innovative lawyers; an understanding of mediation helps us all to be that kind of lawyer.
Q: What kinds of cases does the clinic handle? Do you take private mediation cases in addition to the ones you supervise at the clinic?
A: We mediate contract and tort cases in New York City Civil Court, community disputes with local non-profit organizations, federal sector employment discrimination suits through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and whistleblower cases with the Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In a given semester, we see everything from threats between neighbors to complicated applications of Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower law.