I confess that when I learned things because I had to, it was not always interesting or enjoyable. However, when given the opportunity to learn something because I was curious and wanted to learn, the experience has always been much more positive.
Such was the case recently when I received an email from the Alternative Dispute Resolution Section Council of the Illinois State Bar Association. It reminded me that Oct. 13-19 had been designated by the American Bar Association as ABA Mediation Week.
Since I have been working as a mediator after leaving the bench, I was pleased to know that this national group of lawyers recognized the importance of mediation.
Between television shows and attorney commercials, the public might think that lawyers just litigate. In reality, we spend considerable time trying to prevent problems by careful planning and drafting of documents. When disputes arise, we engage in problem solving that does not always involve filing suit.
The email also made mention of another ABA designation, Ombuds Day. That piqued my curiosity and caused me to do a little learning, on a voluntary basis no less. I was familiar with ombudsman but learned that it is a Scandinavian word meaning representative. Ombudsperson and ombuds are alternative titles for a position that is charged with the responsibility of assisting individuals and groups in the resolution of conflicts.
Regardless which title one prefers, ombuds are found serving in a variety of settings. Examples include institutions of higher education, corporations, government agencies, medical clinics and hospitals, news organizations and even prisons.
According to the ABA source I consulted, the organizational ombudman is defined as a designated neutral who is appointed or employed by an organization to facilitate the informal resolution of concerns of employees, managers, students and, sometimes, external clients of the organization.
The classical and public sector ombudsman, typically appointed by a legislative or executive body, addresses concerns related to the conduct of government agencies. An advocate ombudsman advocates on behalf of a designated population, such as patients in long-term care facilities.
The ABA even has an Ombuds Committee that advocates for ombuds programs being part of all conflict management systems. This position is based, in part, on the opinion that “Ombuds help enhance governance, ethics and risk management strategies, contributing to the overall well-being of public and private organizations, government and the public community.”
The American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution designated the second Thursday of October (Oct. 10 in 2019) as Ombuds Day. This day, like Mediation Week, falls within Conflict Resolution Month. As I learned more, it became clear that the ABA is committed to many forms of dealing with conflict, including those that keep people out of court.
While I do have some familiarity with the role of ombuds, I realize that there is plenty to learn. Perhaps that is why the ABA Ombuds Task Force (who knew there was one?) chose as this year’s theme “Ombuds: Unusual name. Important service.”
The task force, working with leading ombuds organizations, chose this theme for several reasons. It recognized that neither the word nor the work was well-known. It wanted to keep that lack of awareness from causing the important service being performed by ombuds to be overlooked or undervalued.
Additionally, the task force wanted the public to be informed as to the many ways ombuds serve society. The hope of the task force is that the designation of a day to recognize ombuds “will serve as a catalyst for developing greater unity and consistency throughout the profession.”
Certainly, this column is not intended as a comprehensive explanation of the subject. It, like Ombuds Day itself, merely serves as a reminder of a field that is important but not well-known. Perhaps as we learn more, we shall better understand the potential of ombuds to help reduce conflict throughout society. I, for one, am intrigued by the possibilities and want to explore more.
On a final note, I want to reiterate that Ombuds Day precedes Mediation Week. Both fall within Conflict Resolution Month. I think most of us agree that there is no shortage of conflict in our society. Some of it could be reduced by better behavior and a greater effort to be more civil. In October, we can all be more aware of the various methods available to resolve conflict peacefully. Surely ombuds can play a very significant role. Perhaps learning more will lead to using more.