A procession of academic regalia preceded the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven ceremony Wednesday, Feb. 10, which awarded an honorary doctorate to UCI Law professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow (in purple) and four others. Rob Stevens / KU Leuven 

Just keep talking

UCI law professor’s work in dispute resolution is rewarded with an honorary doctorate from Belgian university

In a world of pronounced political polarization, religious differences, economic inequity and cultural divergence, Carrie Menkel-Meadow holds onto something her father once told her: “As long as we keep talking, there’s hope.”

Her lifelong commitment to the power of talk, mediation and active listening has earned the University of California, Irvine Chancellor’s Professor of law an honorary doctorate from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, awarded Wednesday, Feb. 10. Prior to the presentation, luminaries in the field she helped pioneer in law schools 40 years ago dedicated a two-day conference to “Beyond Mediation – Building Blocks of Constructive Conflict Management.”

“This is the kind of thing that normally happens at the end of one’s career – a sort of life achievement award,” Menkel-Meadow said in her fourth-floor campus office, stacked floor to ceiling with books. “But I’m not done yet; I’m nowhere near done.”

KU Leuven, as it’s known, confers honorary doctorates in recognition of extraordinary academic, social or cultural achievements. Among past recipients are Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations; Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile; and Jacques Derrida, renowned deconstructionist who taught philosophy, French and comparative literature at UCI from 1986 until shortly before his death in 2004. Menkel-Meadow was honored for her work in international conflict management, feminist legal theory and the ethics of law. The acclaimed mediator has advised the U.N. and the World Bank and has trained lawyers, judges, diplomats and negotiators all over the world.

“Generally, when women speak of their life achievements, they say they’ve been lucky, while men tend to say their achievements have been earned,” Menkel-Meadow said. “I believe I’ve had both.”

She began her law career at the University of Pennsylvania, then moved on to UCLA, always working in conflict resolution. “It wasn’t seen as ‘real law’ at first,” she said. “It was human skills but not like what we were doing in law school – too much social sciences in it.”

Her first article on negotiation and legal problem-solving appeared in the UCLA Law Review and won a first-place award from the Center for Public Resources, a New York think tank on dispute resolution sponsored by the nation’s biggest law firms and Fortune 500 companies.

“It took Fortune 500 companies and lawyers to acknowledge and recognize the value of problem-solving negotiation and mediation before academics acknowledged the field,” Menkel-Meadow noted. “Now it’s a part of every law school curriculum. California in general and the University of California in particular have been groundbreakers in this area.”

She mediated and arbitrated cases in the U.S., Holland and Australia against the makers of the Dalkon Shield intrauterine contraceptive device. Popular in the 1970s, it was found to have caused severe injury to a disproportionately large percentage of users, and juries awarded millions of dollars in damages. From there, Menkel-Meadow began working with lawyers representing women whose health had allegedly been compromised by leaky silicone breast implants. When a scientific study commissioned to look into the matter found no evidence of cause and effect, the lawsuits were dismissed, an outcome she calls heartbreaking. She turned her mediation efforts to asbestos exposure cases in the ’80s.

Menkel-Meadow came to the UCI School of Law as a founding professor from Georgetown University Law Center, where she is the A.B. Chettle Jr. Professor of Dispute Resolution & Civil Procedure and director of the Georgetown Hewlett Fellowship Program in Conflict Resolution & Problem-Solving. She was the faculty director of Georgetown’s Center for Transnational Legal Studies in London, an innovative partnership with 20 law schools around the world in which faculty and students from participating programs study international and comparative law in a multinational setting.

Menkel-Meadow has written numerous books and more than 200 articles on dispute resolution. In 2012, she published Complex Dispute Resolution (Ashgate, 2012), a set of three edited books: Foundations of Dispute Resolution; Multi-Party Dispute Resolution, Democracy & Decision-Making; and International Dispute Resolution.

She continues to conduct research on restorative justice alternatives to incarceration and scaling up mediation techniques to national and global conflict resolution. Through it all, she has come up with one word that sums up her philosophy of negotiation: “It’s the word ‘and,’” she says. “You’re right and I’m right and probably somebody else is right too. There’s no problem that has only two sides.”

KU Leuven professor Alain Laurent Verbeke, who – along with professors Martin Euwema and Koen Matthijs – nominated Menkel-Meadow for the honorary doctorate, sums up her contributions this way: “She may be considered as one of the mothers of active listening: real listening without an inner voice that shouts out one’s own opinions, feelings and worries. She is convinced that this capacity to break out of the personal limited views and perceptions may play a decisive role in creating more understanding between human beings and, in the end, a more peaceful world. In these difficult and dark times of ideological international conflicts, Carrie emphasizes the responsibility of each and every one of us to engage in a genuine dialogue.”

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