Students Help Southerners Keep Land in the Family

Jared Strumwasser, Becky Jaffe, Jonathan Korin

Jared Strumwasser, Becky Jaffe, Jonathan Korin

Last spring, Becky Jaffe ’09 and Jared Strumwasser ’10, students in the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) spent a week in North Carolina working on a unique project to help extended families resolve conflicts in order to keep valuable land in their own hands.

In the Deep South, there are hundreds of large tracts of land that have passed down through generations of African American families without benefit of a formal will. Jointly owned by many family members, the land can be the source of serious family conflict, making it nearly impossible to achieve consensus on such things as making improvements or divvying up the tax bill. While the value of the land can be significant, the unwieldy ownership structure can render it essentially worthless for the families. Over the past century, many families have ended up losing the land to forced sales by a court or been unable to do anything constructive with it.

“There’s reduced incentive to improve the land,” explains Jaffe. “If you're one of 15 owners, why put in 100 hours improving it if you only own a small percent?” Title to the land is often unclear, so there are other problems, including difficulty in qualifying for loans to make improvements. And if one person insists on selling his or her interest, a court may order the entire property sold since it can be impossible to divide it into parcels of equal worth. There are legal mechanisms that can help families have more control over their land, but getting everyone to participate can be very difficult. The Clinic’s role is to work with individual families to help them figure out what they want to do with their land and how to resolve disputes over it.

HNMCP became involved in the “heirs project” at the invitation of the Heirs' Property Retention Coalition in North Carolina, comprised of various groups assisting these families. In March, under the direction of Matt Smith ’05, a Lecturer on Law and Clinical Fellow at HNMCP, Jaffe and Strumwasser traveled to North Carolina to work with a multi-generational family trying to decide the best use of 150 acres of farmland and woodland in eastern North Carolina. Jonathan Korin ’10, also an integral part of the team, couldn't join them on site but worked with Jared and Becky upon their return to create a manual to help lawyers create a consensus-building process for other families in conflict.

In the weeks before they flew to North Carolina, the students did phone interviews with all the members of the family to figure out what disputes existed and how open the family was to help resolving them. When the students finally met the family, which gathered at a local motel conference room, they were happy to find how receptive they were to the project.

“One of them said, ‘This is an historic moment for our family,’ and had brought a camera to the meeting,” recalls Jaffe. She and Strumwasser set a positive tone for negotiations by asking everyone to discuss their favorite foods, moving from there to more difficult topics. The family was exceptionally gracious to the students, taking them on a tour of the property and offering to have them return as guests.

“Helping a family maintain their ancestral land was very rewarding,” says Strumwasser, who this summer worked at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in San Francisco. “At times it got very emotional. We uncovered some family issues that are bound to exist in any family, and there were definitely moments when I feared we might have actually made this situation worse. But ultimately, we resolved all the tensions and there was nothing but smiles and backslaps, and promises that if I come back to North Carolina, they'd cook me barbecue.”

The “heirs project” is one of a number of cutting-edge negotiation projects at the Clinic, including a project assisting environmental lawyers in China and one helping residents of Nigeria negotiate the best use of corporate donations from major companies.

HNMCP was founded in 2006 by Robert Bordone, Director of the Clinic and the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law. It is the first legal clinic in the U.S. focusing on dispute systems design and conflict management. Approximately thirty students each year, while enrolled in a related academic course on dispute resolution, work on a wide variety of projects for real-world clients, including in international settings.

“The student team did a terrific job translating some of the conflict-mapping and mediation tools we teach in the classroom to an entirely different and challenging context, one that provides a novel set of process options to address very important challenges facing African-American families in the South,” says Bordone.

© 2015 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.