Ask An Expert: Rosemary Howell

Rosemary Howell, renowned lawyer and academic and Co-Founder of Strategic Action, based in Sydney, speaks about both the international and the Australian ADR landscape, the pivotal role of education and the need for more data in the legal profession.

What is your background, how did you first get into dispute resolution?

I am a lawyer by training and background and I discovered early in my career that law was not the love of my life. A series of adventures saw me join the team setting up the postgraduate practical legal training programme in Victoria which involved significant training in educational theory and practice. I loved it and had the good fortune to be allocated the practice management segment to develop and teach. Good fortune brought an offer from the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) to run its continuing education programme and join the fledgling practice management programme which saw me consulting to 500 law firms in Australasia over three years.

Serendipity continued to guide my career and I was offered the role of Secretary-General of the Law Council of Australia, the peak body representing the legal profession. Romance transplanted me to Sydney where I joined what is now Deloitte as Director of Legal Services to set up and operate a consulting service to Australian law firms. My own business beckoned and I established Strategic Action as a consulting and strategic advisory firm to professional service businesses.

Undertaking my Masters introduced me to Dispute Resolution and my professor pushed me into undertaking my doctorate on ‘How Lawyers Negotiate’, a qualitative study of how our clients and those we work with see our negotiating skills.

Serendipity continued to follow me and took me to the Harvard programme on negotiation as a student and later as a teaching fellow with Professor Roger Fisher.

Offered the opportunity to teach interest-based negotiation at Masters level cemented the love affair and saw me enjoy the challenge of sessional teaching combined with a consulting practice which began to attract work we now call dispute resolution. This career has continued to develop and I now have the great good fortune to teach as a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), a Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne and run a practice as a mediator, facilitator, coach and bespoke trainer. The love affair continues.

What is the approach to ADR processes in Australia?

In many ways Australia has been a leader in adopting non-adjudicative approaches to dispute resolution. We have a wide range of legislative regimes requiring mandatory mediation prior to litigation and a growing understanding from the judiciary of what the benefits are. In many law firms and barristers chambers there are practitioners who have broadened their repertoire – embracing the full range of dispute resolution offerings.

There are some great examples of innovative industry practices and one of the identifiable trends is the development of ‘bespoke’ systems designed for specific industries or types of conflict. One of our great lateral thinkers, Shirli Kirschner, has developed approaches across our industry that have turned our thinking about conflict on its head. Her innovations include ‘Working with Right People for Country’ in the indigenous community and her work on Resolution Pathways for the Australian Performing Rights Association (APRA),where she designed a dispute system bringing parties together and directing them to an appropriate pathway via a sophisticated triage process.

These innovations are not mainstream however and whilst we do have some inspiring innovators, our legal profession still has a long way to go before it could be described as showcasing innovative ways of resolving disputes.

How do you think the global dispute resolution landscape is changing and will continue to chang