Law Note: Social Workers and Alternative Dispute Resolution

by: Carolyn I. Polowy, JD and Motisola Zulu, Law Clerk
Published: August 1998 © NASW
Pages: 123, including 3 appendices


An important part of a social worker's professional responsibility is to manage conflict in a productive manner.

Whether advocating for clients, dealing with conflict within organizations, or helping people learn more effective ways of coping with conflict in their lives, resolving conflict in employment settings or related to the delivery of services to clients, social workers are involved with conflict resolution daily.

Social workers are increasingly compelled to follow disputes into court, whether as fact witnesses, expert witnesses, or parties to lawsuits. The many tensions and negative feelings associated with litigation leave social workers and others asking whether there is a better method for conflict resolution. The courtroom can be both costly and time consuming, sometimes taking years for the simplest case to go to trial.

The process of resolving disputes in the courtroom is being replaced or assisted in many areas by alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes. The courts, state and federal agencies, and employers have all begun providing private and less adversarial methods of dispute resolution than litigation. "ADR is perceived as the solution to problems of runaway jury verdicts, expensive discovery proceedings and protracted litigation. Accordingly, courts, legislatures, government agencies, and private organizations are endorsing various forms of ADR."

ADR is a process by which parties to a dispute resolve their differences without litigation. Social workers participate in ADR both as providers and as parties. This law note describes the three principle methods of voluntary alternative dispute resolution - negotiation, arbitration, and mediation -- and discusses traditional and evolving uses for these processes within the social work profession.

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