Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES - This past fall, Los Angeles-based mediator Victoria Pynchon set aside her practice for three months to go to camp.
As a volunteer during the 2008 presidential election, the former attorney headed over to Nevada for 12 weeks of campaigning at Camp Obama, originally with the intention of monitoring polls during that state's two-week voting period.
As a monitor, she had been asked to observe silently and not stray from a specially designated corner of the room. But that's just not Pynchon's style. So, two days into the monitoring, she asked to be turned loose in the field, where she could engage directly with voters and hear their concerns.
That's much the same way Pynchon likes to approach conflict resolution.
"What the law does is strip someone's story of its texture," she said. As a mediator, "I'm vitally interested in people's subjective experience in the world."
Pynchon, 56, spent 17 years practicing law, focusing on intellectual property, consumer class actions and environmental insurance, first as an associate in the 1980s and '90s at Pepper Hamilton and Buchalter Nemer, then as a partner at Hancock Rothert until 2004.
That's when she turned professional mediator and said she found her calling.
"Being an attorney is a challenge to make yourself a better person," Pynchon said. "But it also can be a channel for your character defects. It trains you to be crafty, to be adversarial, to be competitive. It's a big expensive board game."
Mediation, on the other hand, she said, plays to our better angels.
"I'm evangelical about this work," Pynchon said. Because as a species, "we're hardwired for reconciliation."
Pynchon has handled some 300 disputes thus far. In her quest to reach a settlement, she draws not only on her legal background but also relies heavily on her personal insights.
A San Diego native, Pynchon grew up in Southern California and attended UC San Diego, where she received a degree in literature in 1975, before heading off to law school at UC Davis.
The early days of studying fiction did much to shape her sense of what makes for a satisfying resolution, she said.
"It's all about story," Pynchon said. "There's no such thing as a pure money dispute. We work with narrative, and narrative needs to be coherent. It needs to be felt, it needs to be authentic, and it needs to be multidimensional.
"Only lawyers have legal problems. Business people have business problems with justice issues."
The art of mediation, as she sees it, centers heavily on finding ways of helping the parties to acknowledge realities they may prefer to avoid.
"One thing mediation does is help lawyers accept loss," she said. "People who say there's no emotion involved with business litigation are not business litigators. Or they don't believe anger is an emotion."
So far, Pynchon is having a busy 2009.
This summer, her book, "A is for Asshole: the ABCs of Conflict Resolution" comes out in Janis publications, while at the beginning of March, Pynchon moved her practice from Judicate West over to ADR Services. Finding a new home was largely about finding a venue in which she could better utilize her experience in complex commercial law, she said.
Pynchon laughingly describes her style as a certain "reckless fearlessness," but she said what she finds most effective is her ability to speak the language of business.
"I'd recently given a presentation on negotiation as a poker game and in the process learned 'Texas Hold 'Em,'" she said of one of the popular poker variations which relies heavily on strategic thinking.
Soon after, a lawyer showed up on her doorstep with a landlord unwilling to settle a construction dispute, despite his weak case. Pynchon began to talk poker, and suddenly, "looking at the case as a game helped him make a rational business decision," she said.
Though Pynchon's use of gambling analogies might help her distill facts for her clients, she's respected for refusing to play games herself, according to Richard Wirick, a partner at Fainsbert, Mase & Snyder, who heads up the insurance and reinsurance coverage practice group in litigation.
Wirich said Pynchon helped his firm settle what he described as s a "massively complex" real estate case in 2½ mandated sessions.
"She made it all go away like magic," Wirick said. "She doesn't suffer fools lightly, but she will listen exhaustively, and she's very good at taking the long view and showing people the weaknesses of their case."
That and a little creative thinking, said attorney Michael Cypers, who used Pynchon to settle an employment-related matter, is what makes her unique.
"She was very willing to consider out-of-the-box things," said Cypers, a litigation partner at Mayer Brown, who specializes in securities. Faced with a breakdown in negotiations stemming from trust issues, Pynchon took the unusual step of ending a long day by sending the plaintiff and defendant out for a friendly drink.
"She was looking for where the human dynamics were," Cypers said.
Bio: Victoria Pynchon Mediator Age: 56 Affiliation:
Areas of Specialty: Complex commercial litigation with emphasis on intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, unfair competition, catastrophic insurance coverage, nationwide class actions; executive termination disputes; and partnership and business disputes of all kinds.