NEW YORK – Fordham University’s Family Court Mediation Project has won the prestigious President’s Pro Bono Award of the New York State Bar Association. The Family Court Mediation Project teams law students with practicing attorneys to work with families referred by the Bronx Family Court. More than 230 families have agreed to mediate child custody issues through the project, with more than half reaching amenable compromises outside the court system. “Family Court in New York City is so overburdened that parties are given a few minutes in front of a judge, and sometimes they aren’t even given the opportunity to speak,” said Beth Schwartz, a Fordham Law Clinic professor and program adviser. “Through mediation, parties have time to discuss the issues and find a solution that works for them.” Often these solutions may never have been considered by the courts, like for example the particular schedule for sharing time with a child, she said. “Every life situation is different, and you have to be creative in finding a remedy in mediation that works for [the clients],” she said. “You have to keep an open mind when mediating, and you can come up with solutions that a judge would never consider.” The program is run by six student board members, 12 student volunteers and supervised by three Fordham professors. Additionally, several attorneys in the city volunteer to work with the students during mediation. The project is jointly sponsored by the Fordham Law Clinic and the Public Interest Resource Center. Students who participate in the program must take mediation classes at the Law School and attend a weekend training session. In all, students receive about 30 hours of training total. Students later team with an attorney for each mediation session. “Students really gain a lot of skills through mediation,” said Schwartz. “Mediators must be able to listen, to communicate effectively and to be able to read the parties and to figure out what’s really going on. And they must absolutely remain neutral.” Libby Vazquez, a second-year evening Law student and member of the student board, said the project has helped her develop her people skills. “I’ve learned negotiation skills, family law and how to counsel people,” she said. “I think the most valuable thing I learned is how to talk to people and put them at ease. I learned how to get people to talk and to listen to what they are saying. It’s gratifying to see families talking again after a communication breakdown.” The program was created during the 1997-1998 school year. It is one of 13 student groups at Fordham Law School dedicated to public service. During the past year about 700 Law students dedicated 60,000 hours to public service projects.