Legal Vs. Mediation Narratives And Why They Matter

I taught legal process in the context of mediating litigated cases yesterday at the American Institute of Mediation.  I volunteered my time for the singular opportunity to be a co-presenter with the brilliant Doug Noll (buy and read everything he’s written; follow him on Twitter; subscribe to the RSS feed of his blog; and, listen to his podcasts and radio show) and the equally brilliant and most successful “non-lawyer” litigated case mediator in the English-speaking world, Lee Jay Berman of the American Institute of Mediation (follow him; take his Institute’s courses; and, listen to whatever he has to say because your negotiation and mediation practice will improve 100% immediately).

Because Doug, Lee Jay and I spent the entire day yesterday talking about legal rights and remedies as well as legal procedure in the context of negotiating the resolution of litigation, I was once again engaged in the soul-searching that always accompanies situations challenging my loyalty to the adversarial/rights-remedies business and stimulates my enthusiasm for the interest-based, consensus building, collaborative, problem solving negotiated resolution business.

I was looking for something else this morning when I once again stumbled over one of my favorite articles on this issue, Client Counseling, Mediation and Alternative Narratives of Dispute Resolution (Spring 2004) 10 Clinical L. Rev 833 by Law Professor Robert Rubinson.

Before giving you an excerpt that should tempt you to download the article and put it on your nightstand, I want to say this: I work on the razor’s edge of my lifetime career-investment in the adversarial system, on the one hand, and my new’ish passion for collaborative, interest-based negotiated resolutions to disputes, on the other.  I spent 25 years as a warrior who rightfully took advantage of my adversary’s weaknesses.  I was not a problem solver.  I was engaged in a fight to the death on a pre-determined field with rules in which I believed for causes I knew to be just.  As a result, I approach all alternatives to the adversarial process with a litigator’s skepticism, wariness and world-wearyness.  There is no kumbya in me.  It is only my intellectual curiosity that survived the beating my heart took from the world-weary, cynical, grizzled old defense attorneys who taught me how to practice law (as adversaries testing my mettle) in Sacramento thirty years ago.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

The engine that drives litigation’s morality tale is that conflict resolution is a contest between parties, one of whom necessarily represents good and the other necessarily represents bad.  As a result, litigation seeks to designate who has committed moral transgressions by breaching legal norms (or, from the perspective of the defendant, who wrongfully accuses others of having done so).

The Story of Mediation subverts these norms by transforming this familiar morality tale into a story of collaboration. This subversion begins through how mediation conceives of conflict itself. Implicit in the Story of Litigation is that conflict represents a breach of the norms of conduct, thereby ripping the social fabric in some way large or small. In contrast, in mediation, conflict is a norm of conduct, a necessary byproduct of humans having distinct experiences and personalities and needs. Conflict is thus not necessarily a disruption of the moral order, and, indeed, can sometimes be productive.

Mediation’s normalization of conflict, however, cannot eliminate what appears to be a deep-seated human need to understand experience in terms of struggles and strivings. Humans have great difficulty perceiving events as generated by causes beyond our control – what Amsterdam and Bruner evocatively describe as an inability to see events as “One Damn Thing After Another.” We must instead “shape them into strivings and adversities, contests and rewards, vanquishings and setbacks.”

The meta-narrative of litigation maps these “strivings” and “vanquishings” onto the struggle of one party against another and enlists the aid of the court to vindicate justice on behalf of the wronged party. In contrast, the meta-narrative of mediation seeks to map these “strivings” and “vanquishings” onto a collaborative struggle to resolve conflict. This narrative casts all participants as players in a process – collaboration – that is focused on reaching the common goal of successfully resolving or transforming a dispute. This story has moral entailments because collaboration is accepted as a social and moral good. Unlike litigation, however, this story does not generate a binary moral universe that divides the good from the bad, but, rather, a universe that values collaborative striving to achieve common ground and resolution.

This story places mediators in a role that is very different from the role played by decision-makers in litigation. Rather than being heroes of moral vindication to whom wronged parties appeal for justice, mediators promote and model collaborative striving to overcome conflict. This plays out in many accepted techniques in mediation. Mediators, for example, often seek “commitment” from participants to the process of mediation, although mediators are careful not to extend this commitment to a commitment to agree. This commitment to process is a proxy for a commitment to collaborate to seek to resolve conflict, thus incrementally moving participants away from contested litigation and towards collaborative problem solving. Similarly, mediators often “reframe” participants’ statements in order to emphasize “common ground.” This is also an effort to move parties away from a morally charged contest and into collaboration. Finally, mediators encourage and model collaboration through a positive message of optimism and progress towards resolution, even when (or, perhaps, especially when) impasse appears likely.

Moreover, mediation approaches the narrative movement from Efforts to Restoration of Steady State in a very different way than litigation. Whether the Steady State is Restored or Transformed constitutes what I have earlier characterized as a “fork in the road” in the Austere Definition of Narrative. The very language through which litigants seek redress of grievances – to “be made whole,” “to pay your debt society” (with its implication that payment of the debt would return the ledger to balance), even the word “remedy” – implies Restoration. In contrast, mediation tends to reject Restoration as a state to which the parties (and society as whole) should or even can return. Rather, mediation seeks Transformation on the part of all disputants so that conflict is resolved.  It does so by embracing the notion that perceptions of the world (including perceptions of the actions of others) are unstable, thus enabling parties to appreciate alternative perspectives as a way to promote resolution of conflict. Mediation, therefore, does embody a plot that adheres to the narrative movement described by the Austere Definition, albeit in ways that are utterly alien to the morality tale of the story of litigation. The story of mediation can be characterized as follows:

Steady State: Whatever Each Party Views as Pre-Conflict

Trouble: Whatever Each Party Views as Constituting Conflict

Efforts: Collaborative Striving To Overcome Conflict as Modeled and Promoted by Mediator

Transformation of Steady State: A New Relationship Among Parties

Coda: Moving On

                        author

Victoria Pynchon

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… MORE >

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