Arbitration? Still works

Arbitration, in the commercial context and in the consumer / employment context, has become increasingly controversial in recent years. I am an experienced arbitrator. I have taught arbitration at SMU and Pepperdine for years. I am here to tell you that you can make arbitration work for you and your client. It’s up to you. It’s up to the rules you adopt. And it’s up to the arbitrator(s) you select.

The Shame is on Me!

For years I have been making CLE presentations where I wag my finger at you lawyers and say, “shame, shame on you, for not sending me appropriate pre-mediation submissions”, or otherwise not helping me prepare. A few weeks ago I had an epiphany. I need to start being more aggressive about my desire to be prepared. I need to contact you, not sit back and wait for you to contact me.

It’s working. In the past several weeks I have been diligent in trying to set up calls with lawyers in advance of mediations. Written submissions, pleadings, etc. are still welcomed and encouraged. But if you confirm a mediation with me, expect to receive a phone call from me. A chance to have a 20 minute conversation over the phone with counsel is always helpful. I’m better prepared. You will be better prepared. This more aggressive approach is producing more settlements.

What Kind of Cases Do I Mediate?

 Yours. I don’t mediate family law matters, but I have a huge amount of respect for advocates and neutrals who practice in this area. In mediating well over 3,000 cases in the past 20 years, I have a substantial amount of experience in employment, construction, IP, injury, civil rights, contracts . . . I could go on an on and it would be a fair representation of my experience.

 Every mediation deserves my preparation (and yours), and my experience.

Mediating at the Next Level

Have you ever been to a mediation where no offers or demands were exchanged . . . and the case settled? Have you ever engaged a mediator – when the court has ordered mediation but it is months away – to serve as a “neutral case manager”, facilitating scheduling and discovery issues along the way. When is the last time you engaged in a “co-mediation”. Never?
These and many other exciting “best practices” were the subject of discussion at the recent annual training meeting of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals (NADN) in Denver. Imagine a room full of 120 of the most experienced neutrals in the country, each of whom is part of the organization by invitation, discussing trends, tips and tricks for 2 ½ days. It was a unique opportunity.

Inside the “Mediator’s Proposal”

A good friend called me a couple of weeks ago and said that he had recently been in a mediation in San Antonio and towards the afternoon the subject of the mediator doing a proposal to help break an impasse came up. And the mediator said, “If I can get the permission of both sides I would be happy to try a proposal”. So my friend says, “Will, what is he talking about? You don’t need both sides to give you permission, do you?” I may not have given this much thought until last week an experienced lawyer participating in a mediation as an observer asked me the very same question. So lucky you, I will put an end to this issue right now!

Short answer: no. A mediator does not need the permission of either party to do a proposal. I often will let the lawyers know I am thinking about one, and for fun may mention that I intend to try a proposal whether anyone wants me to or not! In fact, I may give one a try in the face of an objection to my doing so! I mean, how is anyone going to stop me? And once it’s sent, I don’t think there is any ambiguity as to whether a lawyer has a duty to share the proposal with the client.

Here is where the confusion may rest: some view the “mediator’s proposal” as a “recommendation” based on the mediator’s “neutral evaluation”. I do not. My proposals do not use the words “recommendation” or “evaluation”. My proposals are just terms that I feel might draw two “yes” responses. That’s it. But if someone viewed the proposal as a recommendation or evaluation, then I agree, the mediator absolutely would need the blessing of both sides to offer it up.

Even though I am an evaluative mediator, I take very seriously my obligation to be neutral in all things. Advocating for a position, making a recommendation, would not be a neutral event, in my opinion.

Here We Go Again: D Magazine Best

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased and proud, once again, to have been included among “The Best Lawyers in Dallas” in the current issue of D Magazine. Congratulations to my mediating colleagues who also made the list, especially to my friends Mary Burdin and Chris Nolland. As far as I know, Mary, Chris and I are the only neutrals who have made the list every year since D Magazine began publishing these lists in 2003.

But again, let’s not get carried away. D Magazine would do everyone a service if they would take a break from this annual issue. The methodology is more suspect than ever (mediators vote only for other mediators — makes no sense). I’m just not sure the public is being well served.

Something I’m Truly Proud Of

What really makes me happy is that in April I performed twelve mediations. Nine resulted in settlement agreements, and in one a mediator’s proposal is still outstanding. In additiion, I participated in a creative arbitration panel “focus group”, went up on another roof in connection with performing my role of umpire in an insurance appraisal, and finished up my teaching schedule for my ADR course at the Dedman School of Law at SMU (I’ve been teaching that course since 1999!). Because I teach dispute resolution, I am always eager to engage in processes other than mediation.

Which reminds me. Whatever happened to Summary Jury Trials? I have some thoughts, but I’ll save them for next month.

Arbitration Under Attack!

Arbitration is under attack. Whether we are talking about the evolution of employment and consumer arbitration, imposed on the unknowing and unwilling through pre-dispute contracts of adhesion, or “business to business” arbitration a/k/a “The New Litigation”, controversy abounds. For years our dysfunctional and overcrowded civil justice system seemed like no place to be for employers, banks, insurance companies and product manufacturers, and so arbitration rose in popularity as a solution. But then two things happened: tort reform made courts friendlier, and it turned out that outcomes in arbitration were sometimes not as expected, leaving traditional defendants with no right of appeal.

But a recent Texas Supreme Court decision in Fredericksburg Care Company v. Perez shines a light on what a remarkable mess arbitration has become. The decision itself is unremarkable and, in my view, correctly decided. The Court determined that a feature of the Texas Medical Liability Act, part of our tort reform in 2003, which required that to be valid an arbitration clause pertaining to a health care liability claim must be in bold, 10-point type, and signed by the patient’s attorney, was unenforceable. Why? Pre-empted by the Federal Arbitration Act. The pre-emption doctrine means that states can’t fiddle with arbitration laws. Mostly. So the parties in Fredericksburg Care are headed for arbitration, even though the arbitration clause was not in bold, 10-point type, etc.

We’re Getting to the Funny Part

Amicus briefs are being submitted in support of the patient’s Motion for Rehearing. Guess which advocacy groups want to reverse the Court’s ruling? The Texas Association of Defense Counsel? ABOTA? The Texas Trial Lawyers? YES!!!!!! ALL SIDES AGREE THE PARTIES SHOULD NOT BE OBLIGATED TO ARBITRATE!!!!!

It’s as if no one knows what to think anymore about arbitration. Confusion and controversy abound. The solution to this mess? Careful, careful attention should be given to the arbitration clause itself. One size does not fit all. But a “cookie cutter” approach too often prevails.

Adios

In a recent mediation the parties and their counsel worked diligently toward resolution all day. Back and forth. Back and forth. Finally, an agreement. Counsel are in my office and we are word-processing something to memorialize the settlement. Drafts are generated. Approvals obtained. Voila, the printer generates the “final” version, and one of the lawyers runs off to obtain his client’s signature. Only to return and report that his client has left. Without his counsel’s knowledge or permission, and certainly without mine.
What would you do as counsel for this client? As counsel for the opposing party who understood that we had a “deal”? What would you do as the mediator? The case is pending in federal court, and as we all know, those federal judges keep score! Let me hear from you. Your opinions are at least as valuable as mine.

I Read You Loud & Clear

Several months ago my monthly email highlighted the use of video teleconference and other technologies in mediation. My position with regard to mediations conducted without the physical presence of all parties remains skeptical, but a recent experience has nudged me a bit.
Video technology has improved and is improving rapidly. I recently conducted a mediation at a “tall building” firm so that the client rep for one party could participate from Boston through the use of the firm’s video teleconference facilities. There he was on a large HD screen on the wall at one end of a conference table. Whenever I walked in the room, there he was, just sitting and waiting. We didn’t have to repeatedly dial him in, only to find that he had disappeared, etc. After awhile it began to feel like he was actually, physically present. I’m not ready to declare this practice acceptable, but I was impressed.

Conference on Emotions

Ever wonder whether it is appropriate to reveal your emotions to a client, or have you had the experience of sharing your emotions and wishing you had not? Can we, as lawyers, become too emotional about our clients and cases, interfering with our relationships and clouding our judgment? Or do we not share our emotions as often as we should?

I am pleased, but in the deep end of the pool, to have been asked to represent our profession on a panel along with a physician and a member of the clergy to discuss these issues. The event is the annual Conference of the Professions, jointly sponsored by the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU, the Dallas County Medical Society, the Dallas Bar Association, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the SMU Dedman School of Law, and the SMU Perkins School of Theology.

Are there “right” answers to these questions? Would you expect doctors and pastors to feel differently about “opening up” to their patients and parishoners than lawyers with their clients? If you have any insights and would be willing to share them with me, I would be grateful for your call or reply email.

Define “Successful”

I recently attended the annual meeting of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (“CPR”). Though I have been a member of CPR for about three years, this was my first annual meeting. I doubt I will ever miss another one. It was wonderful, and not only because the meeting was held in Charleston, South Carolina!

One of the mediation topics presented was an interactive discussion of the criteria important to a “successful” mediation. The audience (approximately 150 experienced neutrals and advocates from all across the United States and several foreign countries) could vote with the use of a hand-held clicker in response to questions posed by the presenter, and the results instantly tabulated and displayed. It was a lot of fun, and very insightful.

When asked which of the following were most important to a successful mediation (quality of the mediator, relationship of the parties, timing, type of dispute, attitude of counsel, and “other”), only two criteria received a substantial number of votes. By a significant margin, “quality of the mediator” was deemed most significant, followed by “attitude of counsel”.

I am fairly certain that most of the mediators in the audience probably voted for “attitude of counsel”, and most of the advocates in the audience voted for “quality of the mediator”, but I can’t prove it! But I believe everyone in attendance would agree that as a general proposition, experience, preparation, patience, and persistence matter. As a mediator, I try to bring these qualities to every mediation.