By: Attorney Susan Hansen
The following article is featured in the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts Wisconsin Chapter Newsletter (Volume VII, Issue 4)
My practice is focused on family law mediation with self-represented parties (SRP). A year ago, online mediation was a rarity in Wisconsin. I was one of the mediators who thought in-person meetings were essential to effectively mediate with couples. Then came COVID-19.
I had to quickly decide whether a pandemic pivot was possible. Within two weeks (and with help from Paul Stenzel in our office), I shifted my mediation practice exclusively to Zoom. ShareFile, a software program for document sharing and electronic signing, became an integral part of my mediation process. With the Supreme Court Rule permitting lawyer mediators to draft, register, and eFile, all case processing occurred electronically. There were numerous bumps and a steep learning curve as I learned about meeting security, screen sharing, breakout rooms, and other Zoom features. Despite occasional hiccups and the challenges of seeing myself constantly onscreen, Zoom has become my entire practice.
While I miss the nuances and connection that comes with in-person meetings, I have found Zoom, with proper preparation, structure, and time limitations, to be surprisingly effective. The parties, either on separate screens or together, tend to be very focused during online meetings. They also appreciate the efficiency of meeting without the drivetime, missed work, and childcare required for in-person meetings. I work in an interdisciplinary process, and joint meetings with child/family specialists and financial neutrals are easily integrated into the online format.
We know the pandemic has triggered an increase in domestic abuse for some couples. For others, it has prompted more communication and increased faith in their ability to reach mutual agreements about their family and their finances. Online mediation can be a positive option for couples to consider, especially for those contemplating proceeding pro se.
SRP numbers continue to rise—estimates in various counties range from 60%-80%. As fewer parties choose to retain or can afford lawyers, mediation is a bridge between do-it-yourself and a two-lawyer process. While competent safety screening and process design are essential, SRP mediation supports increased access to justice by providing legal education and guidance for many couples to help them navigate the court process at a reasonable cost. Online mediation increases the ease of access and reduces the geographic challenges for couples who might otherwise proceed pro se.
While the growth of online mediation was spurred by the pandemic, I believe it will remain a significant part of the future of family law. Hopefully, more professionals will get training and experience to meet this growing need. Increased professional support and access for SRPs will benefit families, professionals, and the courts.
Susan A. Hansen is a partner at Hansen & Hildebrand S.C. and co-founder of Family Mediation Center (a reduced cost mediation service for Self-Represented Parties).