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Interview: Professor Tania Sourdin

Interview: Professor Tania Sourdin

By Melissa Lirosi

Arbitration  Dispute Resolution Mediation 


Tania Sourdin, Dean and Head of School at Newcastle Law School, has had an impressive career with tribunal appointments, international mediations and award-winning research all on her long list of achievements.

We sat down with Tania to hear about her career and some of the challenges she sees lawyers will face into the future. The LIV is delighted to have Tania Sourdin speaking at our upcoming Alternative Dispute Resolution Conference on Friday 12 May.

Could you please briefly describe your career?

I've had a very diverse career. I became a solicitor in 1985. In about 1998 I was appointed as a judicial registrar to the Supreme Court of NSW. While I was there the then Chief Judge of the Commercial Division at the Supreme Court of NSW decided that he really wanted me to do some mediation work and so I trained as a mediator and I've been mediating since that time. 

In around 1992 I also took up a part time tribunal appointment at the equivalent of VCAT in NSW and started doing a little bit of academic work on the side. I was then seconded to the Australian Law Reform Commission. By that time I had finished my PHD and also my Masters. I was seconded onto the adversarial inquiry where I was a legal specialist. In about 2001 I became a Member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on a part-time basis. As part of that role I was often dealing with people with serious mental health issues and so I began to develop expertise in relation to self-represented litigants and also litigants with mental health issues. 

Throughout my academic career I've looked at disputant behaviours. I’ve interviewed litigants in 12 courts and tribunals and 5 or 6 dispute resolution schemes. In 2011 I was appointed as the Director of the Australian Centre for Justice Innovation. I kept up my Tribunal appointments and moved to a Senior Membership at the equivalent of VCAT in NSW. It's been a fascinating career because I've also had the opportunity to work internationally. I've worked extensively in places like the United Arab Emirates and I've taught Judges in Tonga and Vanuatu and trained people in Hong Kong and Canada. I've done quite a lot of judicial training work over the time as well, relating to judicial dispute resolution but also in relation to litigants.

For the last ten years I've been very much involved in technology and dispute resolution. In 2014 I was appointed as the NBN dispute resolution adviser dealing with the industry based disputes relating to NBN. So that's dealing with the 50 or so telecommunications companies that may have disputes with NBN. About a year ago I took up the role as the Dean of the University of Newcastle Law School which really interested me because they have a very strong clinical program and a very strong international program.

Clearly you have a strong interest in dispute resolution and behaviours, what led to that interest?

I first became really interested in the late 1980's when I did a project as part of my Masters of Law on defamation cases. I was really fascinated because very little empirical work had been conducted by lawyers or law academics up to that point. I was really surprised what I uncovered when I looked at a sample of defamation cases. I had expected that there would be a number of cases which dealt with defamation that arose out of media articles. Instead there were all sorts of really unusual defamation cases that I think hadn't really been understood before. So I became really curious about what was driving litigation, who litigated, why they litigated and why they resolved matters. Part of that probably also arose from some of the frustration that I experienced when I saw people litigating when there were opportunities to resolve the dispute. I was very curious to find out why those opportunities weren't taken up and why people continued and expended huge amounts of money based on the principle of the thing. A lot of my work has been focused on behaviour and I won a research impact award for that research in 2015. 

What do you consider to be the main challenges lawyers will face in the future?

There is no doubt at all that technology will change the way that lawyers work and reduce some tasks that lawyers are currently engaged in. So there's a need to rethink how law will operate into the future. I think lawyers will always play a very important role. There's a question around what are the boundaries of some of these new technologies and the extent to which lawyers can ensure that they're able to operate in an environment which will see an increased automation. There are risks and challenges in this new environment.

To my mind what becomes even more important than at any point in the past are the communication skills that lawyers have and the capacity to understand their client's interests in a way where they may have been a little more focused on legal rights in the past. So it's about understanding clients and the client journey and very much having a better understanding of what clients need and expect.

Do you have any advice for practitioners looking to prepare for this new world?

I think many are already there. I mean in some senses it's about making sure that you're competitive and flexible in a very different market. I think it is about making sure you are taking advantage of technologies as they surface. By far the most important thing though is I think around managing relationships with clients and communicating effectively. Communicating effectively means very much listening as well as being able to provide advice, being able to work with clients so that you have a good triage approach when a person comes in the door. By that I mean you're really fully aware of what the dispute resolution options are and have a useful conversation with a client about what options are actually going to meet their needs. 

What changes do you expect to see in the ADR process in the future?

I think online dispute resolution is inevitable. In a sense there are some significant benefits to this because many people are self-represented and in a way there are opportunities with online dispute resolution and also artificial intelligence which enables people who would not have otherwise had advice or been able to access courts and tribunals to be able to access courts and tribunals. So that's a significant change and in some respects there are more opportunities for lawyers particularly if legal services can be unbundled in different sorts of ways. So there are opportunities there.

Want to learn more? Don’t miss our Alternative Dispute Resolution Conference on Friday 12 May where Tania will be discussing strategies for dealing in difficult behaviours in the ADR process, and sitting on a panel with judges from the Supreme Court of Victoria to discuss the future of ADR. 

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