Settlements are a way of life for civil trial attorneys. As the Hon. Roderick C. Young, Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, puts it, “If you graduate from law school and you have a civil practice, most of your cases are probably going to settle.” A new program gives Richmond Law students hands-on experience with pre-trial processes, practices, and preparation at the federal level. 

In the Eastern District of Virginia, parties are required to take part in a settlement conference before going to trial. But for those who chose to represent themselves – known as pro se litigants – the learning curve is a steep one. There’s no right to representation in civil cases, and the obstacles these litigants can face are not insignificant. “The magistrate judges and the district court judges were recognizing that, in some cases, these litigants were definitely being disadvantaged by not having an attorney,” said Tara Casey, director of the Carrico Center for Pro Bono & Public Service. 

That’s where the Pro Se Mediation project, first launched in 2017, came in. Started as a partnership between the Eastern District of Virginia, the Federal Bar Association, and the Richmond Bar Association, the program pairs pro bono attorneys with civil litigants who’ve chosen to represent themselves. Casey serves as the liaison between the U.S. Magistrate Judges’ Chambers and the pool of volunteer attorneys, who work with their clients for the duration of the settlement conference. 

Judge Young and fellow Magistrate Judge the Hon. David J. Novak spearheaded the program from the judicial chamber. And one of the key values of the program, according to Judge Young, is better prepared litigants: “You have lawyers meeting with them, going over the strengths and weakness of the case, so they’re not hearing it the first time [when they go before a judge],” he explained. The result? “We’ve been able to settle more cases now with pro se [litigants] than we did before this project.”  

Starting in 2018, Casey introduced a new component to the program by pairing law students with those pro bono attorneys. Emily Lopynski, L’20, was drawn to the program because of her interest in alternative dispute resolution in the legal profession. “I love the concept of mediation,” explained Lopynski. But “the process of going through mediation by yourself, I think that would be extremely daunting.”  

In the case assigned to Abigail Parsons, L’20, a state prisoner had filed a Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act claim – which included plenty of back-and-forth and negotiations as part of the settlement conference. “Settlements can go bad very quickly,” Parsons learned, “so it’s a process where you’re always on your toes, and you … have to be prepared for.” Plus, she added, “It’s also important to know that you need to be flexible as an attorney – and know that application or enforcement of the law isn’t always so cut and dry.” 

Emma Cusumano, L’19, was partnered with a local attorney to help a client in an Americans with Disabilities Act claim for unlawful termination. “It was clear that this client needed a lot of support – and I think pro se litigants often do,” said Cusumano. “In this case, we’ve got a client who’s up against a big corporation that has tons of resources. And [the client] doesn’t.” Plus, she added, “They have very little incentive to settle if they think [the client is] unrepresented and doesn’t know what she’s doing.” For Cusumano, the entire process was a learning experience: “It turned out the best thing we could do for a client was refer her elsewhere – which is a very important thing for me to know as someone who is about to be an attorney!”

It’s a fairly specialized set of skills that these students are learning through the Pro Se Mediation program – but also a frequently used set. And for Judge Young, that’s one of the main values of the project. “It does something for a law student that I didn’t have when I was in law school,” he explained: “To participate in a case before a federal court judge in a federal law suit, and to see, observe, and get a sense of how these things go with settlement conferences.”