It’s hard to believe that four weeks ago I was getting ready for a mother/son college trip to Austin with my high school junior and youngest child John, his classmate and friend Ethan, and his friend’s mom Adrienne. We had planned and looked forward to the trip for a long time. After I taught my law school class, we left from Reagan airport on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4th, checked into our Airbnb apartments located in the South Congress area of Austin, and celebrated Ethan’s 17th birthday that night over a late night dinner at Magnolia Cafe. The next morning, a Thursday, we were up bright and early for a tour of the campus at UT Austin. We had an amazing tour guide and wonderful conversations with film professors and staff in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, as well as with the Director of the School of Journalism. The weather was perfect with blue sky and sunshine. Everyone we met was warm and welcoming.
After our day on campus, we had a fabulous dinner at Loro Austin, an Asian smokehouse and bar. Later that night, when we were back at our Airbnb, my friend Brenda back home in Arlington texted me the following: “3 cases of corona virus in Montgomery County. Hold on tight…here we go…” I felt a twinge of anxiety as I started getting ready for bed and tried to get some rest so that it didn’t morph into a full blown panic attack.
The next morning, a Friday, I decided to get up early and walk around South Congress. It was another beautiful warm day in Austin and no one was up and about yet. I walked over to the TOMS shoe store and coffee shop that had hanging lights, a patio with tables and chairs and a couple cozy porch swings on their covered porch. I ordered a hot chocolate and a banana bread -- and soon Adrienne joined me and then the boys did too. As we were walking around the area, I received a notification that the annual and renowned film, media, music and tech conference, SXSW, (or as they say in Austin, South By) that was to begin on March 13th and end on the 22nd was canceled. I felt that twinge of anxiety resurface on this happy and relaxing day. We had two more incredible meals that day in Austin -- a picnic outside enjoying Franklin’s Barbecue and a late and exquisite dinner at Emmer and Rye.
John and I returned home over the weekend. My last day of normalcy was on Thursday, March 12th. I had committed to speaking at the Arlington Women Entrepreneur Summit 2020 on Alternative Dispute Resolution and Small Business. When I look at a picture taken at the conference, I am now amazed at how close together my friends and I were standing to each other. The whole world has changed since then.
We are healthy and safe. We are staying home except to do weekly grocery runs. John’s high school – H-B Woodlawn -- is closed for the rest of the school year as are all other schools in northern Virginia. My DC Court mediations have been canceled through May. I am teaching my law school class on line through Webex video conferencing. I have moved my entire mediation practice on line via Zoom video conferencing.
Each day seems to get easier as we adjust to our new routine. Initially I thought that mediating on line would be so difficult. But practice makes everything easier. I read tips from online mediation expert, friend, and colleague Susan Guthrie and played around with Zoom. I started mediating on line during the week of March 16th and now I welcome video conferencing as an added dimension to my practice.
In mediation, the process is simple:
1. Identify the issues
2. Pick the first issue to discuss
3. Brainstorm solutions to that issue
4. Evaluate each solution and ask questions
5. Make a joint decision on that issue (or decide to come back to the issue later)
6. Pick the next issue to discuss and repeat
7. After joint decisions are made on each issue, the mediator writes up an agreement
Meeting separately and confidentially with each party during a mediation can be achieved easily by using Zoom breakout rooms. So I can meet with both parties together, separate them into different breakout rooms if necessary and desired, and bring them back together – just as I do when we meet face to face. I can share a white board to list issues that we are discussing and share documents with my parties as well, such as financial worksheets. So we can all look at each other, be present for each other, and at the same time review the white board and/or various documents. In short, we can make online mediations work quite well, and my clients are happy with this level of service.
I work with intact families and families who are separating and divorcing, as well as families who have post-divorce issues. I also work with small businesses who may have business partner disputes or disputes with manufacturers or suppliers. Most disputes can be resolved through mediation, whether the dispute is between neighbors, employers and employees, contractor/homeowner, or landlord/tenant, for example.
I’d love to hear how all of you are doing as March comes to an end and we welcome April – and spring! Stay safe and healthy everyone. And please let me know if I can help with any issues that may arise as we are all living, schooling, and working together in close quarters, taking things one day at a time.
Below are photos from our happy trip to Austin and from the AWE Summit 2020:
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.