Marcie Dickson, Founder and CEO, Alterity ADR
I fundamentally believe in the value of alternative dispute resolution over litigation as a way to resolve conflict. Ideally, ADR facilitates better, more satisfying, and efficient outcomes–and it promotes a more civil society. Over my years as an executive in the ADR industry, I’ve seen how the right neutral can help parties craft a creative, workable resolution to their disputes.
Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a reality that’s often quite different, because the ADR industry is even more of a small and insular club than Big Law. I’ve founded Alterity ADR to make ADR more diverse, accessible, and inclusive. While the term “alterity,” derived from the Latin word alter for “other,” is unfamiliar to most people, it captures who we are at Alterity ADR. To us, “other” means better alternatives to the current status quo.
Currently, in ADR, neutrals are predominantly older white men–and when diverse neutrals do appear on panels, they are too often passed over for meaningful work opportunities. A June report from the American Association for Justice, for instance, found that at the nation’s two largest ADR firms only 23% of arbitrators are women and 12% are people of color.
I’ve seen over my years in ADR that having the same small group handling disputes can materially affect case resolution. They may lack the cultural competency, the willingness and ability to actively listen, or the subject matter expertise needed to achieve a resolution that is truly satisfactory for all parties.
After one mediation over allegedly negligent security in an apartment complex, for instance, the defendant’s lawyer recounted to me in alarming detail how the plaintiff–a Hispanic woman who’d been raped–struggled to explain her experience to a roomful of white men. That included the mediator selected by her attorney. Unsurprisingly, the case did not settle.
I don’t ascribe to the view that ADR’s lack of diversity is a “pipeline issue.” Alterity is launching with a panel of mediators and arbitrators who are brilliant, accomplished litigators and former judges–and also unprecedentedly diverse.
At Alterity, we are also bringing much-needed transparency to ADR, with no complicated pricing, procedures, or hidden fees. We want our clients to know what they’re paying for–and whom they’re choosing as neutrals. If there is a potential conflict, we’ll tell you and help you find an alternative.
Neutral selection in ADR is often opaque, and clients may be unaware if their neutral has undisclosed conflicts or lacks the requisite expertise. For a complex aviation dispute, the law firm’s relationship partner might hire the same former judge they’ve always used. He may get the case settled–but would there be a better outcome using a good aviation specialist?
When we interview candidates for neutral roles, we look for people who ask good questions and who show a collaborative, creative approach to solving problems. But first and foremost, we want to know if they’re good listeners. Clients deserve neutrals who are able to hear and address the human concerns that drive nearly all disputes. Our philosophy is to listen first, then recommend a process that fits the dynamics of a dispute.
On a Personal Note
Unsurprisingly, the ADR industry’s lack of diversity extends to leadership. As Alterity’s CEO, I am the first Black woman to lead a national ADR firm–and one of only a handful in the legal industry. For the past five years, I served as the chief marketing and business development officer of an Atlanta-based ADR firm. I recruited top practitioners in new markets across the Southeast, while notably increasing the number of neutrals of color and women. I’m very proud of that.
I could have stayed on that path. But the events of the past year–the pandemic and the renewed racial justice movement following George Floyd’s murder–pushed me to take the risk of starting something new. We as a society are finally realizing the need for change.
My team and I at Alterity aim to change the culture of ADR. Since none of us can achieve success without some help along the way, we are also committed to training the next generation of neutrals. We are dreaming big–but this is not “build it and they will come.”
We’re building this together. Alterity is for everyone who cares about making ADR more accessible and inclusive–whether you’re a business leader, corporate law partner, or aspiring neutral.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s possible for ADR–whether its services you’d like to see or referrals of promising neutrals. Drop me a note at email@example.com. It’s time to open up the club.
Founder and CEO, Alterity ADR