Mediator Proflie: Howard Bellman

This article originally appeared in the April 1999
issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by
the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard
Public Disputes Program.

How did you get into
the field of dispute resolution?

As a federal and state government labor
attorney at the beginning of my career, I found
that I generally preferred the mediator,
arbitrator, and hearing examiner roles. When I
entered private practice, I intended to continue
in those roles, as well as to engage in some
dispute resolution research. Fortuitously, I was
invited into environmental disputes, and I came
to believe that the mediation process could
succeed in those matters as it does in labor
disputes. This led me to speculate that still
broader applications were not only possible but
potentially very beneficial. I have had a very
broad practice, involving many types of cases,
ever since.

Do you concentrate on
particular issues or clients?

In fact, I very much enjoy working in a
variety of conflicts. The only self-imposed
limitation is that I refuse family disputes. Of
course, most of my cases are in the
labor/employment, environment and complex
litigation areas, but I believe that is more a
matter of reputation than expressed preference.
My technique, such as it is, seems more attuned
to those cases as well. My years of government
service, including as the head of two state
agencies in Wisconsin, also suggest some
grounding in public policy processes.

What projects are you
currently working on?

As usual, I am currently mediating in a few
very large, long-term cases, and a number of
shorter-term matters. The greater involvements
include settlement negotiations over remediation
and redevelopment at a large contamination site
in New England; a negotiated rulemaking for the
US Department of Education; the reconstruction of
an industrial collective bargaining relationship
in Florida that was undermined by a strike; and
the development of constructive dialogue between
a state agency in the northwest and a union
representing its employees.

My cases also include settlement of civil
suits alleging wrongful discharge and breach of
contract, and I am arbitrating and mediating a
few labor-management grievance and bargaining
disputes.

What are your general
views on the state of public dispute resolution
today?

I am, at the same time, both optimistic and
concerned about the general state of public
dispute resolution. It seems ” a mile wide
and an inch deep” in terms of its general
acceptance by many governmental entities. It
lacks a clear and unambiguous vocabulary that
might support both better discussion within the
field and better communication within the
marketplace. A certain nebulousness about the
field inhibits its professionalism, in my view.

Still, there seems to be an ever-increasing
amount of important work, and even where the
support seems shallow, it is a beginning. If you
distinguish public dispute resolution from the
much faster growing field of ADR, which is more
focused upon litigation settlement, you might
worry about whether the public matters are
benefiting from generalizations that do not apply
well to the public sector.

Experienced practitioners might spend more
time on the design of dispute resolution
processes so that those processes will have the
advantage of their “real life: experience.
We have opportunities to make suggestions to
courts, legislative bodies and government
agencies as they adopt new procedures and risk
repeating mistakes already make elsewhere.

Increasingly, we are also called upon by the
private sector as businesses in corporate
mediation and arbitration into their contracts
and internal procedures. Here too, insights
gained in day-to-day mediation should reinforce
these efforts to control costs and protect
relationships. It is very gratifying to assist in
these projects, which promise that in the future,
while some disputes are bound to occur, they will
proceed efficiently and in the best interests of
all concerned.

How do you feel
personally about your work? Is it as satisfying
as you’d hoped? In what professional direction is
your work evolving?

I absolutely love this work. It requires
developed skills as well as intuition and some
risk taking. We work with individuals and
organizations who are important to our society,
and we contribute to the civility of our culture.
We are in a position to help demonstrate that a
diverse society can respect and consider
conflicting philosophies without coming apart.

When agreements are achieved, and mediation
seems to have helped, or when better dispute
processing resolutions are adopted, one has the
satisfaction of being a contributor to an
important success. I only want to do more, to
continue.

                        author

Howard Bellman

Howard Bellman received his law degree from the University of Cincinnati and an L.L.M. in labor law from New York University. He served as Secretary to Wisconsin's Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations under Governor Tony Earl's administration. He has extensive national and international mediation experience. He has mediated… MORE >

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