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Mediation Inc: Creative Solutions for Disputes --
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The Need for Mediation

The overwhelming majority of filed cases are resolved by means of non-trial disposition. Recently new ideas, systems and devices through which to optimize this circumstance have emerged. Some of the groundbreaking work took place here in Cleveland. For example, the seminal study and recommendations of Lewis R. Katz, Justice is the Crime (CWRU Press, 1972), provided compelling evidence of how and when cases are resolved during their legal lives, and how early mediated resolution benefitted all involved.

Although the subject of the Katz study was criminal cases, its relevance to the civil side is clear. Among other things, that research and its subsequent pilot programs showed that the vast majority (upward of ninety percent in most jurisdictions) of cases are resolved by non-trial disposition and a large percentage of those dispositions are ultimately resolved by agreement of the parties. One of the more remarkable portions of the Katz study, which I had the opportunity of participating in as a project manager, demonstrated that of all resolved cases, the great majority were closed somewhere toward the end of the case life — near the trial date and without prior formal attempts at resolution, at a point when huge individual and court resources had been expended. Not only were resources squandered by all parties and involved courts; but attention to cases actually meriting those resources was being obscured.

The Decision to Mediate

The increased use of the mediation process as a device to meaningfully impact this litigation short-circuit sprang in part from such evidence. "Mediation" has taken on many different forms and definitions. However, above all, mediation is a process of self-determination whereby the parties, with the help of a neutral, determine a resolution. This definition of mediation perhaps best captures the major strength of the process. In other words, keeping the determination in the hands of those most familiar with the law, facts and actual underlying interests of the parties, as opposed to a finder and trier (a judge and/or jury) and process (trial or other motions) more removed — in some instances, many times removed — from the realities and interests of the parties.

Once the decision to mediate is embraced by both sides, the usual first step is mediator selection. Should it be the judge presiding over their matter if it is a case that has already been filed? Should the person selected have "special" people skills or personality qualities? Should he or she have an expertise in the subject matter? What does neutrality mean with respect to the person chosen?

Should the Judge Mediate?

One of the threshold considerations is whether the judge assigned to the case is an appropriate mediator — remembering that mediation is a special process with a specific definition and defined goals and boundaries, above all, self-determination. It is not a settlement conference or a pretrial and brings with it a unique set of values. Much has been said with respect to whether judges — particularly judges assigned to cases — should act as mediators on those cases. The judge brings a certain leverage to the table and is perhaps best equipped to "control" the circumstances and the competing dialogue between the parties. However, the downside is great. Perhaps the best recent statements of the various views on this topic comes from Jim Alfini, chair of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution and a professor of law at Northern Illinois University College of Law and Frank E.A. Sander, the Bussey Professor at Harvard Law School.

In an article entitled "Risk of Coercion Too Great" (Dispute Resolution, Fall 1999), Alfini relates that the risk of coercion by a presiding judge is great if judges are permitted to mediate cases they are going to try because the judge has too much at stake in the process: namely minimizing his or her docket.

He also points out the risk of role confusion (adjudication versus facilitation), lack of competence and training and the appearance of impropriety. In his article, "A Friendly Amendment" (Dispute Resolution, Fall 1999), Professor Sander adds another point to the dialogue: that the important element of candor might be eliminated altogether from the mediation process if the mediator is to later act as the judge.

Will parties and their lawyers really speak openly and candidly when they know that the same person helping settle their dispute will also be sitting as a trier in that litigation? Will they truly trust a process which has as a core value the element of confidentiality with the judge presiding?

Judicial Versus Mediation Function

Other elements of concern have been articulated, perhaps most notably, by the Honorable Abner Mikva, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He asks whether the skills and values of a judge lend themselves to mediation or whether they are in conflict and if so, whether a judge is able to put them aside when acting as mediator. For example, a mediator in a traditional mediation may never have to arrive at whether an outcome/resolution is consistent with legal precedent or other legal "correctness" and yet it is this same precedent and legal "correctness" that comprises a judge's "bread and butter", the mainstay of the adjudicative function. These same elements may have nothing to do with the mediator's perspective and more importantly, in many cases should have nothing to do with the mediation process, especially if that process is one focused on facilitative resolution, with little or no focus on evaluation of a claim or merits. Judge Mikva's second and related point: can we expect the patience and restraint from judgment and merit evaluation from a judge when it is this same judgment and merit evaluation that are so much a part of the judicial function?

During a presentation at the April 2000 meeting of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution, Judge Mikva questioned the propriety of employing the trial judge as the mediator because judges may lack the requisite patience due to their inherent inclination as judges molded by judicial experience, training and legal/judicial values. He explained that the judicial function creates an inclination to make rulings, which is most times just the opposite of the mediation process with its need not to render evaluation or rulings, to let time pass without legal or merits evaluation sitting on one's shoulder or the compulsion inherent in having something "so ordered".

Ultimate decisions may be the job of the judge. They are not necessarily the function of the mediator. Thought ought to be given to such considerations in selecting someone to mediate since it is important to distinguish between the traditional settlement conference — or final pretrial — and mediation session, which is something quite different and which de-emphasizes the traditional advocatory function, focusing on self-determination, confidentiality and consensus building.

Consider the Type and Style of Mediation

Besides the two overarching and often competing forms of mediation — evaluative and facilitative — there are sub-species of mediation that may or may not be conducive to what you may be looking for in a mediator. Such factors play a role in mediator selection. In Mediation (Jossey-Bass, 1984), Professors Jay Folberg and Alison Taylor describe the diverse styles and forms of mediation.

Those forms include the traditional labor model, with its professional mediator and advocates/ spokespeople, therapeutic mediation, supervisory mediation (which most of us have experienced in the form of workplace or familial squabbles) where the mediator also holds authority to ultimately decide, "muscle" mediation (arguably not mediation at all but a hybrid form of arbitration), shuttle, community, crisis, celebrity and so on. Your experience with a mediator and establishment of a track record will tell you whether his or her style or employment of a particular form is appropriate to a case. The mediator should be prepared to customize a model appropriate to a specific case at the beginning, and he or she should demonstrate willingness to be flexible with that model throughout the process.

Consider the Type of Case

A mediator should also have the ability to discern whether the subject matter is commercial in nature or whether emotional factors will play a role. Domestic relations mediation usually has no commercial aspects; however, it has many obvious emotional pieces. On the other hand, a matter which may seem "commercial" on its face may in fact hold elements which are emotional. In residential construction disputes, a house is indeed perceived by the owners as his or her castle and things can disintegrate to a personal level very quickly, unless that is recognized and dealt with accordingly. Other subjects falling under the heading of "business", but that are emotional at their heart, are employment and contract termination mediation, where the mediator and representatives must be prepared to understand and deal with issues of emotion that may undermine successful resolution.

Ask yourself whether the mediator is prepared to deal with such issues on a creative basis. Is his or her "touch" appropriate? Does he or she convey neutrality and a resolve to remain so? There are no guarantees with respect to whether all the right buttons are going to be pushed. Only the establishment of a track record with a mediator and your own personal judgment can help determine whether a particular individual is right for a case.

Is Subject Matter Expertise Necessary?

Should the mediator have particular expertise in the subject matter of the case? Not necessarily. For example, lots of intellectual property disputes are resolved where the parties and their representatives know much more about the law and subject matter than the mediator. Success is many times dependent upon, and determined by the quality of information and preparation provided by the lawyers or other representatives. While the success of the mediator may relate to such third party expertise, the concentration of the mediator may very well be on traditional mediation skills and their application and practical experience in mediating the type of case.

After all, mediation is as much an art form as anything, requiring experience, knowledge, timing, people skills, creativity, diplomacy, a good deal of intuition and much more. These factors must not be overlooked in mediator selection if the intended result - resolution - is going to get its best chance.

Jerome F. Weiss is engaged in general litigation practice. He is a former member of this Association's Board of Trustees and is founder and president of Mediation Inc, an Ohio-based company providing mediation-related services.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2000 issue of the Cleveland Bar Journal. If you wish to print out this article, click here.

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