Choose the Right Dispute Resolution Process

Consider how dispute resolution might best fix your conflict.

By — on / Dispute Resolution

dispute resolution

Consider the situations that could benefit from dispute resolution:

• A divorcing couple can’t agree on a custody arrangement for their young children.
• A manager accuses his former employer of firing him due to age discrimination.
• An electronics company accuses another company of patent infringement.

In each case, the parties and their lawyers have been unable to negotiate a resolution on their own. They’re ready for outside help in resolving the dispute but are unsure what process to use.

Dispute Resolution

Claim your FREE copy: Dispute Resolution

Discover how to improve your dispute resolution skills in this free report, Dispute Resolution: Working Together Toward Conflict Resolution on the Job and at Home, from Harvard Law School.

What is dispute resolution? There are three basic types of dispute resolution, each with its pros and cons. The first two, mediation and arbitration, are considered types of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) because they are an alternative to litigation.

Types of dispute resolution

Here’s an overview of the three basic types of dispute resolution:

Mediation. In mediation, a neutral third party tries to help disputants come to consensus on their own. Rather than imposing a solution, a professional mediator works with the conflicting sides to explore the interests underlying their positions. Working with parties together and sometimes separately, mediators try to help them hammer out a resolution that is sustainable, voluntary, and non-binding.

Arbitration. In arbitration, a neutral third party serves as a judge who is responsible for resolving the dispute. The arbitrator listens as each side argues its case and presents relevant evidence, then renders a binding decision. The disputants can negotiate virtually any aspect of the arbitration process, such as whether lawyers will be present and which standards of evidence to use. Arbitrators hand down decisions that are usually confidential and that cannot be appealed. Like mediation, arbitration tends to be much less expensive than litigation.

Litigation. The most familiar type of dispute resolution, civil litigation typically involves a defendant facing off against a plaintiff before either a judge or a judge and jury. The judge or the jury is responsible for weighing the evidence and making a ruling. Information conveyed in hearings and trials usually enters the public record. Lawyers typically dominate litigation, which often ends in a settlement agreement during the pretrial period.

Three questions to ask

How should you decide which dispute resolution process to choose? In a chapter in The Handbook of Dispute Resolution (Jossey-Bass, 2005), Frank E. A. Sander and Lukasz Rozdeiczer advise you to answer three questions, based on the type of dispute you are facing, to ensure that you choose the right method.

QUESTION 1: “What are my goals?” Simply knowing what you want to get out of the dispute resolution process can help you decide where to start. Begin by prioritizing your goals. For example, Carla wants to jointly hash out a custody agreement with her husband as inexpensively as possible. It seems clear that mediation is the best choice for her dispute, due to its relative speed and low cost, and the fact that it gives parties the greatest degree of control over the final outcome.

By contrast, Jack, who feels he is the victim of age discrimination by his former employer, has the primary goal of winning a large financial settlement. Thus, he may want to start with arbitration. If he also wants to set a legal precedent that could benefit others, he might turn to litigation instead. In both instances, he would do well to listen closely to his attorney’s assessment of his odds of winning the case and a large settlement.

What if you and the other party can’t agree on your goals? Sander and Rozdeiczer advise you to start off with mediation, as it is a safe, non-binding procedure for both sides.

QUESTION 2: “Which process will capitalize on the best features of the dispute?” Every dispute has features that can help you reach a beneficial outcome, write Sander and Rozdeiczer. Which process will best trigger the strengths of the case?

The authors have identified a number of dispute features that lend themselves well to mediation, including a good relationship between parties and their attorneys, opportunities for creative problem solving, and eagerness to settle quickly.

By contrast, if you would benefit from formal protections, such as enforcement of key decisions, then arbitration or litigation might be a more fitting option. Suppose that Company A believes Company B is guilty of infringing on one of its patents. Even if mediation resulted in Company B’s agreeing to stop manufacturing the product in question, Company A might doubt whether Company B would abide by the decision. If so, Company A might decide to go straight to arbitration.

QUESTION 3: “Which process will best overcome barriers to resolution?” Consider the ability of the three different dispute-resolution methods to help you overcome barriers to settlement. When parties are having trouble communicating and have a strong desire to air their feelings, mediation is often the best choice, advise Sander and Rozdeiczer. When more than two parties are involved, such as other relatives in the case of a custody dispute, mediation might also be optimal, as it allows multiple parties to be involved. However, when parties have different opinions regarding the law affecting their case, a judge or arbitrator’s expertise ultimately may be needed.

Have you been successful with dispute resolution? Share your experience in the comments.

Related Article: Employee Grievances: Most Legal Disputes are Resolved in Litigation or Arbitration?

Dispute Resolution: Mandatory Arbitration Under Fire

Dispute Resolution

Claim your FREE copy: Dispute Resolution

Discover how to improve your dispute resolution skills in this free report, Dispute Resolution: Working Together Toward Conflict Resolution on the Job and at Home, from Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “Trying to Resolve a Dispute? Choose the Right Process,” first published in the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.

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5 Responses to “Choose the Right Dispute Resolution Process”

  • Shaina B.

    Collaborative family law, developed in Minnesota by Stu Webb and others in the 90s, is a highly regarded ADR mechanism that is growing in popularity with clients, attorneys and the bench. Buddy T’s comment, that collaborative law is not truly dispute resolution, because “the parties are already invested in an outcome”, entirely misses the point, in my opinion. We use our specialized training to help our clients resolve their separation issues, while keeping our clients out of court and avoiding much of the collateral damage to children, relationships and resources. If there is an ADR box that is not ticked in the process, I’d like to know which one that would be.


    I am Muhammad Faisal Khan a PhD Sociology student in Pakistan and doing my research in ” PUBLIC TRUST ON COMMUNITY BASED DISPUTE RESOLUTION (CBDR) IN AZAD KASHMIR-PAKISTAN”
    My research proposal is also attached here with.
    I want a technical training support in the above mentioned subject. Am i eligible to apply for the ” PON Graduate research fellowship” or any other training program related to
    Arbitration,negotiation,conciliation mediation etc i am using these as approaches for the CBDR.
    My proposal has been accepted by the Board of Advance Studies and Research and now i am collecting data on my questionnaires.
    I will be thankful to you if you kindly guide me how to get any research grant while in Pakistan for conducting my research in Dispute Resolution or either i can have any opportunity of training in research in USA.

    Thanks and regards,
    Muhammad Faisal Khan

    • I have forwarded your request to the person responsible for research fellows here.

  • Buddy T.

    Collaboration, in most of the situations I have been involved in, has a balance of power dynamic. Regardless of the inherent or positional power of the parties, all have chosen to set aside that power dynamic to seek efficiency and a quick solution. Both parties are invested in the outcome, so durability, although not guaranteed, is more likely than in mediation. So, the shortest answer is collaboration is not truly dispute resolution since the parties are already invested in an outcome, and are willing to negotiate to that end.

  • Thomas W.

    Why is collaboration not mentioned? I realize it is not as well-known as its cousin, mediation, but Harvard Law now offers a class in it. I have told skeptics that the Harvard stamp of approval on collaboration is proof of its legitimacy as a process for resolving disputes. Was I wrong?


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