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How we resolve our disputes

Entries in mediate (7)


Facilitative vs. Evaluative Mediation

In my last post, I discussed the difference between neutral evaluation and facilitative mediation. Since that time, an article on the same subject appeared in the Wisconsin Lawyer, the official publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin. One of the authors of the article is Michael Moore, a fellow soccer Dad whom I have known for many years. The article does a great job of defining the two formats. Unlike me, the authors define both of these types of dispute resolution methods as mediation. I believe that only the facilitative method is true mediation. Neutral evaluation is more like non-binding arbitration or a mock trial. It is basically a win-lose scenario, but with non-binding results. Facilitative mediation is a search for a win-win scenario. Nonetheless, the article is an excellent introduction to the uninitiated, as well as a timely reminder to those who may not always remember that there is another way. Too often, litigation attorneys are like the man with a hammer — to them, every problem looks like a nail.  

Mr. Moore and his co-author clearly set forth the differences between what they consider to be the two most prominent types of mediation. What surprises me is that title of the article, “Take a Different View: Explore Mutual Interests with Facilitative Mediation,” seems to imply that the facilitative format is something new and different. Facilitation is different than evaluation, but it is hardly new. While it does seem to be gathering a following here in Wisconsin somewhat more slowly than in other states and parts of the country, I have written about and practiced it for several years now. I have noted that mediation should be considered primary dispute resolution, and that the shuttle diplomacy type of mediation (focusing on positions rather than interests) brings to mind Sam Goldwyn’s declaration that “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Facilitative mediation is not easy to do well. Arbitrators and neutral evaluators can sit back and let the parties develop and deliver their positions. Facilitative mediators must probe to find the parties’ true interests and to develop creative solutions to the problem. But I agree entirely with the Wisconsin Lawyer article authors who conclude that “With the help of a facilitative mediator, parties are often able to resolve their disputes without the expense, frustration, economic loss, and business and personal disruption entailed in pursuing litigation.” Amen to that.


Neutral evaluation

Sometimes when I am called upon to mediate a dispute, what the parties really seem to be looking for is a neutral evaluation of their legal case or negotiating position. While I am happy to do that for the parties, I make sure to explain to them that this is different than mediation. It requires the parties to present to me, in summary form, most of their case. The parties need to consider whether or not they want to share all of that information with the other side, either directly or through me. If they do, it is really like non-binding arbitration. This can help the parties get a more realistic view of their chances of prevailing at trial and, therefore, promotes settlement. However, if the parties or their attorneys are not communicating well, a mediator may still be necessary to facilitate negotiations. On the other hand, if mediation is attempted and reaches an impasse, neutral evaluation may help to break the impasse.

There are no rules declaring what type of dispute resolution is best for resolving any particular type of dispute. It depends on the nature of the parties’ relationship and the dispute. It also depends on how much time and money the parties want to spend trying to resolve it. All of these considerations should be laid out and discussed before attempting to resolve any dispute. One size does not fit all. Your mediator should be familiar with all of the dispute resolution options and discuss them with you before proceeding. In Wisconsin, the statutes require a judge to discuss with the parties the desirability of alternative dispute resolution before trial. Don’t get tunnel vision and lock in on only one option. As I have said before, options are good. Keep them open.


Making law

Every few months, I talk to a local business networking group about the law. I get my topic by asking members to submit a question to me in advance. I call it “Ask the Attorney.” This month, the topic concerned an arbitration that involved a real estate agent’s client. I explained that the arbitration must have arisen out of an agreement to arbitrate. Members of the group seemed surprised to learn that no law compelled them to enter into an agreement to mediate or arbitrate a dispute. My presentation showed how law was frequently made by one of our 3 branches of government (legislative, executive or judicial). But even more “law” was made by mutual agreement between individuals or business entities. We call these agreements contracts. In effect, a contract makes law between the parties to the agreement. That law is enforceable in court just as any statute passed by the legislature or any rule properly made by an administrative agency. But it can be enforced only by or against the parties to contract, or by designated beneficiaries of the agreement. Therefore, the procedure and outcome of the real estate arbitration in question depended on the terms of the agreement to arbitrate.

Near the end of my presentation, one of the group members asked whether I recommended that all of their business agreements contain an aribtration or mediation clause. Again, I think my answer surprised them. I told them that I did not recommend inserting an arbitration or mediation clause into every business contract without considering the costs of those proceedings, the nature and goals of their business, and the types of disputes likely to arise. I also explained that such clauses do not have to be agreed to before any dispute arises. Arbitration and mediation agreements can be, and frequently are, entered into after a dispute arises. Of course, even if you do have a mediation or arbitration agreement in your contract, you can waive the right to enforce it by mutual consent or conduct inconsistent with enforcement.

The beauty of any agreement to arbitrate or mediate is that you are being proactive in addressing your dispute. Too many people leave dispute resolution to their attorneys or the courts, leaving the details to lawyers. Mediation and arbitration are much more hands on for the real parties. By tailoring the procedure to your dispute, you increase your chances of an acceptable, timely and economical resolution. There may be times when you want to set a public precedent or change existing law, which requires litigation in court and maybe an appeal. In other situations, you may be more concerned about confidentiality or putting the dispute behind you as soon as possible. Whatever your goal may be, it is always better to have options and to think about them before making a choice.

It is important to remember that, when entering into any kind of contract, you are making law. That is an awesome responsibility. Exercise it wisely.


Play Ball!

This is not about Major League Baseball, even though today is opening day of the 2011 season. However, baseball has been used as a metaphor for, or backdrop to, life in general for most of the last century, at least in U.S. literature and theater. From For Love of the Game to Field of Dreams, from The Chosen to the The Natural, baseball in novels and the movies is part of our national and cultural folklore. Baseball’s lessons and language also permeate mediation and dispute resolution.

The other day, I was engaged in some business negotiations. After presenting our initial proposal, the other party’s attorney said it was not even “in the ballpark” and advised his client to forget about making any deal with us. In effect, he wanted to pick up his ball and look for another game after the first pitch. Recognizing this as a time-worn negotiating tactic, I reminded them that we were only in the first inning and there was plenty of time for both sides to take their turn at the plate. In other words, we wanted to play ball with them. If they would have accepted our initial proposal, we would have been very happy but that was not our entire game plan. After the exchange of a few more proposals, it became apparent what was important to each side and an agreement was reached. All it required was for each side to demonstrate a love of the game and be prepared to “go the distance.”

Very often in mediation and negotiation, we see parties take positions that are seemingly irreconcilable at the outset. If the parties come in with positions that are truly their bottom lines, no agreement or settlement will be possible. Therefore, I recommend that the parties do their research ahead of time, come in with their best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) but be aware of the worst that could happen. And then play ball. After all, it is our national pasttime.


Hopes to Settle

The headline for the lead article in the local section of today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reads “Archdiocese hopes to settle.”  Music to a mediator’s ears.  The article quotes Milwaukee Archbishop Listecki and the attorney for 15 plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits in Milwaukee County Circuit Court over the Archdiocese’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases.  The Archbishop said he wants to be responsive to victims, and avoid a trial in court and extensive legal fees.  The attorney for plaintiffs said the victims want exposure of all offenders, disclosure of all files, and closure.  That would be very poetic justice.  How nice when both parties publicly state their motivation up front. 

A retired Cook County (Illinois) judge will be the mediator.  One roadblock immediately appeared when plaintiff’s attorney said that a desire by the Archdiocese to seal the documents would be a deal breaker.  It remains to be seen whether the judge will be able to avoid that obstacle to settlement.  It is nice to see mediation getting such prominent attention in the media.  But will the parties’ publicly expressed intentions be followed in private negotiations and mediation?  Or is it all just so much “hopium”?  Determining the parties’ true motivations is the beginning of the process, not the end.  It has taken the parties 15 years to decide to try mediation in these cases.  A quick end is not necessarily in sight merely because they have agreed to mediate, but it is a good first step.