What’s Your Theory of Change for Dispute Resolution? – Part 2

Part 1 of this series provided a long list of goals of people in our community.  This post provides a non-exhaustive list of some of the many strategies that we have used to advance these goals.  In developing realistic theories of change, it is important to consider contextual factors that may affect one’s efforts.  This post lists some such factors as well as general patterns of social change.


Our community has created and supported an incredible toolbox of strategies to accomplish our goals including:

  • increased number, variety, and refinement of dispute resolution processes, often specialized for particular types of disputes
  • DR programs in courts, businesses, government agencies, and other institutions – in-person and online
  • systems for selecting appropriate processes based on early case assessments
  • use of paralegals, unbundled legal services, and court systems to provide free or low-cost assistance
  • education of parties about dispute resolution techniques
  • protocols to protect vulnerable parties, such as domestic violence victims
  • materials, in-person assistance, and technological tools to help parties handle their disputes on their own and participate in DR processes
  • public information about DR practitioners and programs
  • literature and materials for academics, practitioners, and the general public
  • production and dissemination of empirical research about DR
  • initiatives to improve quality of DR processes
  • initiatives to increase diversity of DR practitioners
  • trainings and continuing education programs for practitioners
  • education of lawyers to be effective advocates in DR processes
  • instruction about DR in law school and other higher education programs
  • conflict resolution education and peer mediation programs in K-12 schools
  • legal regulation of practitioners and/or DR processes
  • ethical standards, rules, and review processes
  • legal protection of confidentiality of communications in DR processes
  • laws authorizing courts to order parties to use DR processes
  • uniform laws
  • bilateral and multinational international treaties and agreements
  • DR entities in government agencies
  • DR professional associations at local, state, national, and international levels
  • DR committees in local, state, and national bar associations
  • convening of stakeholders to address specific issues
  • dispute system design techniques

Of course, these strategies haven’t been universally implemented nor completely effective in achieving their intended purposes.  What strategies do you think would be most effective in accomplishing your highest priority goals?


Our world – and the world generally – is constantly changing.  A theory of change should consider past, present, and potential future circumstances and trends including:

  • institutionalization of DR in courts and other institutions
  • “creeping legalism” – tendency of DR innovations to become legalized over time
  • difficulty anticipating court results related to low trial rates
  • ADR fatigue – we’re not the “shiny new thing” anymore
  • decreased funding for courts and other government entities
  • large population of low-income and other self-represented litigants
  • cut-off of Hewlett funding and decline of resources it supported
  • contraction and restructuring of legal practice in the US
  • contraction of system of legal education in the US and resistance to fundamental change
  • aging of large cohort of senior law school faculty with limited prospects of repopulation

Some trends in society generally may affect DR including:

  • prejudice and discrimination against disfavored groups
  • inequality of resources and power
  • fluctuation of economic conditions
  • changes in political power and philosophy in various branches and levels of government
  • decreased agreement about evidence, facts, and truth
  • technological change
  • increase in number and sophistication of communication modes
  • increased use of social media
  • change in demographic composition of various parts of society
  • increased political polarization
  • cyberwar and other abuses of cyberworld
  • international migration
  • climate change
  • deterioration of the Post-War order with the ascendance of authoritarian countries like China and Russia and weakening of democratic countries like the US and many countries in Western Europe

What trends are likely to affect the ability to accomplish your top priority goals?

General Patterns of Social Change

The Encyclopaedia Brittanica provides a useful primer on sociological theories of social change.  Numerous theories have come in and out of fashion since the Enlightenment, and there is no single generally-accepted theory of social change now.  Various theories describe different mechanisms of social change including:

  • mechanisms of one-directional change such as accumulation, selection of superior ideas, and specialization
  • mechanisms of curvilinear or cyclical change that recognize limits to growth and natural cycles
  • conflict, competition, and cooperation
  • tension and adaptation to changes in a social system
  • diffusion of innovations
  • planning and institutionalization

Which of these dynamics are likely to affect our efforts in the future?

Everybody Talks About the Weather . . .

. . . but we actually do lots of different things to create better ways for people to manage conflict and handle disputes.

Sure, we don’t create world peace, cure cancer, or reverse climate change.  But we do help improve people’s lives in many different ways.

As we appreciate the legacies of our field and contemplate the future, how do you think that you individually and/or we collectively can advance the dispute resolution project?  What goals are particularly important now and what strategies seem most likely to be effective in achieving them?

I have asked a range of people in our community to address these questions in a Theory of Change blog symposium and I invite you to contribute as well.

This post describes how you can contribute to the symposium.

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