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Diplomatic Engagement To Settle Your Commercial Litigation

by Victoria Pynchon
September 2009

From Settle It Now Negotiation Blog

Victoria Pynchon

Today's New York Times Op-Ed piece on "diplomatic engagement" (Terms of Engagement) as a strategy for "chang[ing] [Iran's] perception of its own interests and realistic options and, hence, to modify its policies and its behavior," offers good strategic negotiation lessons for mediators and mediation advocates alike.  As Crocker explains:

[E]ach case of engagement has common elements. Engagement is a process, not a destination. It involves exerting pressure, by raising questions and hypothetical possibilities, and by probing the other country’s assumptions and thinking. Above all, it involves testing how far the other country might be willing to go. Properly understood, the diplomacy of engagement means raising questions that the other country may wish to avoid or be politically unable to answer. It places the ball in the other country’s court.

Litigation is an extremely good way to "exert[] pressure," on your negotiation partner by burdening it with the costs of  waging the adversarial contest.  The litigation itself not only "rais[es] questions and hypothetical possibilities" but through the process of discovery, it also "probes [the opponent's] assumptions and thinking" and "test[s] how far [your opponent] might be willing to go" to achieve victory.

Parties disappointed with mediation and mediators are usually dissatisfied with the mediator's inability to engage in the final step of "engagement diplomacy" -- "raising questions that the [opponent] may use to avoid or be [positionally] unable to answer."  A good mediator is unafraid to raise those difficult questions with each side of a dispute.  But raising those difficult questions is not enough.  A good mediator must also be able to deliver bad news to the parties in such a way that the parties are able to hear it. 

If the goal of the negotiators -- the attorneys -- is to "change the[ir] [opponent's] perception of its own interests and realistic options and, hence, to modify its policies and its behavior," the negotiators and their clients must be prepared to:

  • reveal to the mediator
    • hidden constraints preventing them from modifying their demand or offer; and,
    • hidden interests that must be served in order to justify any such modification
  • candidly acknowledge (in separate caucus)
    • the weaknesses of their position; and,
    • any constraints on their client's willingness and ability to put their convictions to the test of a jury verdict or judgment by the court
  • help the mediator help their clients understand that most litigation is based upon differing subjective experiences of the same "objective" series of events so that no one must admit that the other side is "right" and their own side is "wrong"

An example of the lengths to which people will go to be "right" is unfortunately provided to us today by the obituary of the first anti-abortion advocate to be shot and killed for his beliefs.  The slain activist spent years protesting outside the car dealership owned by Tony Young, who explained how the protests finally ended (from Slain Abortion Opponent Loved the Controversy)

Mr. Young said that after about three years of protesting outside his dealership, Mr. Pouillon came in and offered a truce. “ ‘Tony,’ ” Mr. Young said the exchange began, “if you would just agree that I’m right on my beliefs, I’ll stop.’

“I just told him, ‘Sure, Jim, you’re right,’ ” Mr. Young said, chuckling. After that, he said, Mr. Pouillon moved on.

Although few cases could so easily turn on the dime of a semi-sincere acknowledgement that the other side is "right," most attorneys would be surprised by how much value can be generated by acknowledging that the other side's version of the facts or the law is not crazy, evil, bizarre, intellectually dishonest or asserted in bad faith.  See The Biggest Lie in the Business:  It's Only About Money.  As I noted there:

The social scientists who study these things say that the way in which we respond to adversity "often reflects the fact that [our] prestige or status has been threatened more than the fact that [our] purchasing power has been diminished." Miller, Disrespect and the Experience of Injustice, Annual Review of Psychology (2002). In other words, the corporate C.E.O., like any other kid on the block, will retaliate when he feels he has been disrespected.

Conversely, research shows that business people are reluctant to recommend legal action if they believe that they and their company have been treated respectfully. 

By the same token that business people are reluctant to recommend legal action if they believe their company has been treated respectfully, they are often far more willing to settle litigation if they believe their positions have been heard and acknowledged as having been made in good faith.  For those headed toward settlement discussions or mediation, Crocker has good advice:

[B]y far the greatest risk of [diplomatic] engagement is that it may succeed.  If we succeed in changing the position of the other [side's] decision-makers, we then must decide whether we will take yes for an answer and reciprocate their moves with steps of our own.  If talk is fruitful, a negotiation will begin about taking reciprocal steps down a jointly defined road.  Engagement diplomacy forces us to make choices.

If litigators and their clients are aligned in the interest of settling litigation, they must prepare themselves to take "yes for an answer" by having in place a strategy of engagement that will permit them to reciprocate the other side's moves with steps of their own.  A good mediator should be capable of bringing all parties to the on-ramp of the road that counsel and their commercial clients are well-placed to and highly skilled at jointly defining.    

Biography


Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all types of business torts and contract disputes.  During her two years of full-time neutral practice, she has co-mediated both mandatory and voluntary settlement conferences with Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Alexander Williams, III and Victoria Chaney.  As a result of her work with Judge Chaney in the Complex Court at Central Civil West, Ms. Pynchon has gained significant experience mediating construction defect litigation.  Ms. Pynchon received her J.D., Order of the Coif, from the U.C. Davis School of Law. 



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