The “Alternative” in ADR

A bar association group with which I’m involved was called the “Dispute Resolution Section” for a time.  It recently renamed itself the “Alternative Dispute Resolution Section,” as it had been called when it began years ago.  ADR Section becomes DR Section becomes ADR Section again.

How come?  What do we mean by “alternative?”  Why is it important for some to call it that?  Why is it important for some not to call it that?

Within the community of those who work in processes other than litigation, it’s now more commonly called just “dispute resolution.”  (Though some groups are avoid changing their acronyms by changing the “alternative” to “appropriate.”)  It is more often within the legal community that we hear it called “alternative” dispute resolution.

The concept of an alternative only makes sense within the context of being an alternative to something else.  Here, that referent is unstated, but implied and clear.  It’s pretty well understood that when we hear “alternative” we know what’s meant is “alternative to litigation.”

Litigation is the dominant paradigm in our society for approaching disputes.  It’s not the most used, of course, because it’s priced beyond the means of so many people.  But it is what most of us think of first when we think of conflict.

The term “Alternative Dispute Resolution” stands firmly in a narrative viewpoint centered on litigation, law and lawyers.

Yet to describe the full range of all the methods that human beings can use to approach their disputes as  “alternatives” to litigation seems to be missing something important.  It glosses over the essential characteristics of both litigation and its “alternatives.”

To get at those essential characteristics just stand the concept on its head.  I will at times provocatively describe litigation and the legal system as ADR — as the alternative to people working out their resolutions to disputes themselves.

Maybe, at this point, still, some 30+ years into the development of ADR, the easiest way we can describe what we do is that it is “not-litigation.”  But being fixed in a particular narrative vantage point limits our thinking.  It’s like calling the ocean “not-boat” or the vast reaches of the cosmos “not-earth.”

What is the essential nature of litigation?  What is the essential nature of each of the other dispute resolution approaches?

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