With courts at a virtual standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parties with ongoing legal cases have turned to alternative solutions to settle their disputes.

Several mediation firms in Chicago are offering virtual mediation sessions using Zoom and similar technologies to help settle family law disputes and lawsuits out of court.

Even with most trials halted, matters settled in mediation can be submitted to the court electronically or by mail, certified and enforced.

“The courts have provided a mechanism that new, outside agreements can be approved and are enforceable,” said J. Alex Jacobson, a former divorce attorney and founder of Jacobson Mediation Group. “What I’m doing is providing an opportunity to reach a resolution to family law matters while courts are closed.”

Jacobson is relying primarily on Zoom to set up teleconferences with her clients and their attorneys to mediate ongoing divorce settlements as well as renegotiating existing custody agreements due to the complications caused by the pandemic.

Jacobson noted that with millions of people being laid off or working from home many existing child support and custody agreements “had holes poked in them” and needed temporary modifications written in.

“The only available option right now is alternative dispute resolution by remote means,” Jacobson said. “The courts don’t see these as emergencies so we’re helping craft creative solutions tailored to families’ needs.”

Family law isn’t the only area which has seen increased mediation business. ADR Systems President Marc Becker said they could see an increase in business as more people seek to settle ongoing lawsuits rather than wait for the courts to reopen and work through their backlogs.

“The first week no one knew what to expect, but with the exception of a few hiccups everything is working really well,” Becker said. “Zoom and CourtCall have allowed us to do basically everything and our clients have enjoyed having the opportunity to settle things instead of just being on lockdown.”

ADR Systems is currently mediating a variety of cases including family law, personal injury, malpractice, commercial and insurance suits, among others.

“We’re doing all the same kinds of cases we did before, even complex, multi-party cases,” Becker said.

Becker and Jacobson explained systems like Zoom make virtual mediation easier than conference calling or Skype because they provide options for the moderator to put parties into separate “break-out rooms” and allow for everyone to still see each other face-to-face.

“If we’re in a meeting and the parties want a minute to confer privately with their attorney, we can just put them off in their own separate breakout room where nobody else can hear them,” Jacobson said. “It’s also nice because we can bring in other parties to give input if we need to, like a psychologist or a representative for a child.”

Becker said “eye-to-eye” communication, even electronically, can make a big difference.

“Obviously this isn’t exactly the same, but it’s a close second to in person communication and it’s really the only option right now,” he said.

Even Becker’s large group settlements have not caused too much difficulty yet.

“CourtCall will have a moderator join in on the call so they can handle sending people off to break out-rooms and keeping the conversation going,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts but once everyone gets used to it, it’s virtually seamless.”

Since going fully virtual on March 13, ADR Systems has already handled one 10-party case and is scheduled to do a 30-party suit mediation later in April.

Jacobson and Becker said videoconferencing has enabled their firms to be more flexible with their timetables as well, which has been helpful given the complicated living and scheduling arrangements the pandemic has caused for many people. Both firms are offering evenings and even limited weekend appointments for their clients’ sessions in order to accommodate people who are working from home, juggling strange hours or dealing with young children home from school.

“People need help, and they need help now,” Jacobson said. “This system has been extraordinarily effective.”

While remote mediation has been used by both organizations in the past to accommodate extenuating circumstances, Becker said “it just had never been utilized to this extent before.”

Once settlement agreements are reached the mediators have the option of getting all the parties on one last call to verbally agree to the terms. The recorded consent can then be submitted to the court in lieu of a hard copy document in order to avoid being in the same room or passing papers to numerous parties.

“The show must go on,” Becker said. “Time will tell how long we need to do this, but we are ready and capable to handle it. We are willing to do whatever it takes to accommodate parties so they can settle their cases.”

Jacobson said she believes even after the pandemic settles down, remote mediation technology will still be implemented more than it previously had been.

“Obviously there will always be issues that are addressed more easily in person,” she said. “But certainly, this is a method that is here to stay. I’m just thankful the technology exists for everyone who needs it.”