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Do Attorneys' "Get In The Way" Of Mediator Assisted Negotiations?

by Victoria Pynchon
January 2010

From Settle It Now Negotiation Blog

Victoria Pynchon

The not so secret opinion among mediators is that attorneys make settlement more difficult.  Just as lawyers are heard to say that "litigation would be great if it just weren't for the clients" (a "problem" only class action plaintiffs' lawyers have actually resolved), mediators  tend to say "mediation would great if it weren't for the lawyers."

Esteeming the rule of law in America as I do (especially in the recent era of its greatest peril) I have never seen lawyers as a problem in facilitating settlement of the lawsuits they have been eating, drinking, sleeping and, dating for years longer than I've spent reading their briefs and engaging in some pre-mediation telephone discussions.  

I can't say lawyers are a problem because:  (1) they're my job; and, (2) they're "my people" in the "tribal" sense.  A few bad apples aside, lawyers are among the hardest working, most ethical, creative, multi-talented professionals I know.  And they are pretty much solely responsible for fighting the battle, on every common weekday, to preserve the rule of law as a bulwark against tyranny on the right and anarchy on the left.

It was therefore no surprise to see a recent Harvard Negotiation Journal article (thanks to Don Philbin of the Disputing Blog and his indispensable ADR Toolbox) that one group of academics has asked whether attorneys have a Negative Impact . . . on Mediation Outcomes.

Let's start with this particularly widespread canard from the article:

Attorneys may delay the settlement of a dispute through mediation for financial reasons. For example, the payment of professional fees on the basis of hours worked could motivate the attorney to delay the settlement of the dispute to increase the number of hours billed to the client  (citations omitted).  Such non financial reasons as a desire to build or preserve a reputation for “hardball negotiating” in highly publicized cases could also motivate an attorney to delay settlement of the dispute [which the authors don't mention often results in a far better outcome for the client].   In addition, attorneys’ (or their clients’) commitment to or belief in their case based on questions of justice or other principles [which are worth, in my opinion, greater attention that purely monetary outcomes] could also delay settlement until “defending the principle becomes too costly” (citation omitted). Finally, attorneys may wish to justify both their role and their fees with unnecessary interactions./1

Are we mendacious, self-serving, parasites of the "justice system," feathering our own comfortable nests as we attempt to preserve the "outdated" notion that the justice system is capable of delivering justice? I don't believe so, but let's not get all anecdotal about these questions when we have cold, hard statistics within reach.  What were the results of this study on the way in which attorneys might "get in the way of" a successful mediation?

Here's the bottom line assessment (please read the article yourself to draw your own conclusions).

The empirical data we collected in this study indicate that the presence of an attorney in a mediation does not significantly affect the settlement rate, the time needed to reach an agreement, the perceived fairness of the process, the parties’ level of satisfaction with the agreement, or the parties’ level of trust that the agreement will be honored. These results indicate that attorneys have much less impact than is claimed by those mediators who do not welcome their involvement in the mediation process.

Nevertheless, the results also demonstrate that the presence of an attorney does affect mediation outcomes in at least two ways: by reducing the parties’ level of satisfaction with the mediator’s performance and by reducing the level of reconciliation between parties.

So the Myth Busters of this study conclude that attorneys:

  1. don't "significantly affect the settlement rate" /2
  2. don't significantly affect "the perceived fairness of the process";
  3. don't significantly affect "the parties' level of satisfaction with the agreement; and,
  4. don't significantly affect the "parties' level of trust that the agreement will be honored."

This is the subjective viewpoint of the litigants, mind you, in a dynamic where the mediator often openly attributes the success of the mediation to the clients' attorney - an observation which is more deeply true than most mediators would care to admit with all their white horse hi-ho silver, magic bullet off-to the-rescue enthusiasm.

What did litigants report to the authors of this article?  They indicated that attorneys adversely affected mediation outcomes in two ways:  (1)  they reduced the parties' "level of satisfaction with the mediator's performance"; and, (2) they "reduced the level of reconciliation between the parties."

Of all of the purported effects of attorneys' presence at mediation - without whom, it must be noted, the parties would not likely be induced to sit down and mediate at all -- the only significant perceived difference is the failure of the mediation process to reconcile the parties - something in which the legal system has little to no interest.

Please read the article for proposed solutions to the reconciliation issue.  As to the remainder of the study's findings, I have this to say:

  1. whenever two or more people are gathered together, the dynamics of the group more profoundly affect the outcome than do the contributions of any individual member of the group.  Our "reality," especially as it appears in a group setting, is "co-created."  See the New York Times must-read article on the Psychology of Terrorism and Retail Marketing at Google Books (the latter noting that because people live in a social world which is co-created in social interaction with others . . . . [they] can be thought of as both products and producers of the social world."  Id. at 218.)
  2. try as you may, you will never be able to untangle the threads that create the intricate tapestry of a settlement; every member contributes something invaluable without which the precise result could not possibly have been achieved. 
  3. who is therefore responsible for the good and who responsible for the purportedly bad results of mediation?  That's easy:  EVERYONE IS.

That being the case, we are all responsible for our outcomes - whether our contribution is "negative," i.e., resisting settlement, for instance, or "positive," i.e., problem solving the reasons given by Mr. Negative that the case simply can't settle on terms acceptable to all.  Remember your University philosophy class? Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.  We need people willing to state the negative to problem solve it positively.  The relationships cause the outcome, not one member of a group unless that member is a tyrant with loyal troops at his command. 

If you'll allow me a literary reference that justifies my own collegiate career and says far more eloquently than I ever could why we're all accountable, I first give you one of my favorite authors, Paul Auster (who you may remember as the screenwriter of the movie Smoke).

The world can never be assumed to exist.  It comes into being only in the act of moving towards it.  Ese est percipii.  Nothing can be taken for granted:  we do not find  ourselves in the midst of an already established world, we do not, as if by preordained birthright, automatically take possession of our surroundings.  Each moment,each thing, must be earned, wrested away from the confusion of inert matter, by a steadiness of gaze, a purity of perception so intense that the effort, in itself, takes on the value of a religious act.  The slate has  been wiped clean. It is up to [us] to write [our] own book. Paul Auster, The Decisive Moment from The Art of Hunger.

The second excerpt I will leave for your thoughtful consideration is by the greatest scholar of comparative religions to ever inhabit the planet - Joseph Campbell (skip the intro with the new age music).

Schopenhauer, in his splendid essay called "On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual," points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggests that just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself of which your consciousness is unaware, so, too, your whole life is composed by the will within you. And just as people whom you will have met apparently by mere chance became leading agents in the structuring of your life, so, too, will you have served unknowingly as an agent, giving meaning to the lives of others, The whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. And Schopenhauer concludes that it is as though our lives were the features of the one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too; so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life which is the universal will in nature.

It’s a magnificent idea – an idea that appears in India in the mythic image of the Net of Indra, which is a net of gems, where at every crossing of one thread over another there is a gem reflecting all the other reflective gems. Everything arises in mutual relation to everything else, so you can’t blame anybody for anything. It is even as though there were a single intention behind it all, which always makes some kind of sense, though none of us knows what the sense might be, or has lived the life that he quite intended.

Joseph Campbell - The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, as quoted in Derek Parrott's Blog.

Lawyers, mediators, clients, experts, consultants, legal assistants, and, yes, even your spouse with whom you consulted before today's mediation, every one of them is part of the "net of gems, where at every crossing of one thread over another there is a gem reflecting all the other reflective gems [so that] [e]verything arises in mutual relation to everything else, so you can't blame anybody for anything" and, by the  way, we can't credit credit nor bear all the responsibility for anything.  We are all capable.  We are all accountable.  And we all contribute something to the whole.

So we can stop pretending to be better than we are now.  We can all put down the burden and shame of our own entirely human fallibility; the myth that we ever do anything without the contribution of others; and, the pretense that we don't behave as badly, or as well, as other people do.  We're part of the team.  We're in it together.  Isn't that good news for the New Year?

And to give you a treat from having gotten this far, a scene that is all about seeing, from Paul Auster's Smoke.

____________________

1/ I'd be interested, of course, in what the authors consider to be "unnecessary interactions."

2/ This is a particularly interesting finding since mediators have also been found not to improve the settlement rate but only greater party satisfaction in several studies.

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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