Tara Ollapally is a lawyer, and an experienced mediator at CAMP Mediation. In the first part of an interview with Amicus Partnerds, she talks about her days as a law student, human rights at Columbia Law School, and the future of mediation.
Amicus Partners: You worked with a human rights clinic as an undergraduate student at University Law College in Bangalore. How did that experience shape you as a lawyer?
Tara Ollapally: As a law student, I was so motivated in setting right the wrong. I interned at the National Human Rights Commission, and one of my projects was to understand the mental health situation of women prisoners. I spent a fair bit of time in prisons across the country. Keeping aside the mental health aspect [which we] really don’t address, was the fact that so many of them had no legal representation.
In my final year of law, I was driven to try and find a way to address that gap. We created a little clinic of final year law students; we could not represent them directly but tried to fill that gap, working with junior lawyers on a pro bono basis.
It was a fantastic concept, and as a student I was so motivated and charged to do something like that, as were the other students. But there were so many hurdles. Change requires constant perseverance and effort.
AP: Are these experiences what prompted you take up the masters in human rights from Columbia Law School?
TO: I think from very early on, I knew that I wanted to be in the social rights aspect of the legal profession. As it happened, I was moving to the United States and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to make that transition into moving to a new country.
Reflecting back, I would perhaps not have done a master’s course at that point [of time]. I would have perhaps worked for a certain period of time and then done a master’s.
TO: Because I think it gives a lot more context to your master’s program when you have a little bit of practical experience. You go to law school for five years and you have minimal exposure to the practical aspects through internships. But, you have to sink into it as a full time professional for a couple of years before being able to make full use of your master’s degree program.
AP: How was your LLM experience?
TO: For me it was fantastic. I was lucky enough to get the human rights fellowship at Columbia Law School. So again I was fully focused on human rights for that one-year program.
Before the LLM, I was ingrained in domestic issues. [After the LLM] I switched to the international practice of human rights law which was very exciting. But I did miss the cultural identification, the drive that comes with being able to understand a local issue.
AP: What were some of the big changes you noticed in the learning experience?
TO: Oh it was completely different!
Remember I came from University Law College Bangalore where most of my legal education was from framed through moot courts, through internships – it wasn’t really classroom education.
And suddenly I was put into this environment where you had Professor Louis Henkin, who was the name in international human rights law, as my human rights professor. [We had] top notch academics who knew their field. It was intensely rigorous.
AP: How did you manage?
TO: I had to. Perhaps I burnt the midnight oil for the first time (laughs) But that was all so exciting, and it was such an enriching experience. Because, whatever said and done, the American university system is so systematic, it is so up to date, they get the best out of you, they give you the best.
TO: Just the course load, the course expectation, the number of papers you had to write, and the quality of the papers. The way they were critiqued, the feedback, the expectations, and if you have not done your research you are going to get caught out right away.
Moving your research from a grade F to a grade B or B+ was incredible, and they would be handholding you through that as much as they could.
AP: What was the job market like when you graduated?
TO: Oh it was tough when I graduated because 9/11 happened when I had just moved to New York. And of course you had the downfall of the American economy. So it was a tough job market for international students.
I was lucky because I did not have immigration issues, and perhaps that was one of the factors that helped me in getting me a job. But I was one of the few who did manage to get a job.
AP: Not too long ago, you come back to India and CAMP Mediation.
TO: I kind of stumbled into mediation. It wasn’t a planned next step. It appealed to me. I come from a human rights background, I come from an access to justice [perspective].
My mother was a pioneer in the mediation movement. She was one of the co-founders of the Bangalore Mediation Centre. And she felt the need to take this next step in mediation – you needed to start private mediation.
AP: When you say private, you mean not court-mandated mediation?
TO: Exactly. So at that point in time, the only way you could access mediation was through centres that were attached to the courts where the judge would refer the matter to mediation.
But not that many commercial mediations [took place] because the commercial world avoids the court as much as possible. To get into the commercial dispute resolution space, we needed to get into the private mediation where parties have access to high quality mediation services.
That is how we conceived of the idea of CAMP.
I had no exposure to mediation, other than having done a 40-hour programme on mediation. But purely from the perspective of an access to justice issue, it kind of rationally made sense to me.
TO: What is our pendency? Thirty million cases are pending in our courts. Ten to fifteen years is the average time it takes [for resolution]. And if you look at it from the perspective of “justice delayed is justice denied” then you are talking about access issues, you are talking about rule of law issues.
And we are working along the lines of a legal system that approaches rule of law only through adversarial or court-based methodology to dispute resolution. Which in today’s world is one of the means, not the only means [of dispute resolution]
AP: It must have been difficult to sell mediation initially?
TO: We started CAMP in January 2015 and we would actually get calls asking, “So, when are your meditation classes?” – that is the environment in which we started.
I would go to some of these incubation centres to talk to the start-ups and people seriously thought that we were there to talk about meditation. They had no clue about mediation. (laughs)
We have definitely moved from there.
I am convinced that people will see the value of it and bite into it. Because we are working in an environment where people want and need options. What is being provided to them is not optimal, they are not happy with it.
AP: Mediation did get legislative backing recently through the changes in the Commercial Courts law. But, you have noted that more needs to be done.
TO: This amendment mandates disputes to go into mediation before they can be filed in the commercial court unless the parties are seeking interim relief. This is a fantastic step to try and get parties to sit down and resolve their dispute before you access the adversarial process to dispute resolution.
[But] what the law has not thought through are the details with respect to how this is done. For example, the body that has been given the mandate to administer these mediations is the legal services authority.
Which really does not make sense.
It is not thought out that a commercial dispute, and legal aid cannot be clubbed together in the same forum. If you have the legal services authority administering commercial mediations, you are setting yourself up for disaster.
AP: Do you see commercial establishments recognising the benefits of mediation?
TO: Mediation makes so much sense for commercial disputes.
What do businesses want? They want to find a quick, cost-effective and appropriate way out, a business way out. They don’t want to mull over the dispute for 15 years. Mediation is not process-heavy. We don’t have pages and pages of process that needs to be followed before an application is filed. There are no applications that need to be filed.
The objective is to be able to understand what are the interests of the parties, what is it that the parties truly want.