I have a passion for dispute resolution. It comes from my heritage – a dad who was a lawyer in the Midwest in the 50’s, 60’s and until he retired at 85 years old in the 90’s. He was a master negotiator but at the same time a supreme diplomat. His best friend – my Godfather – told me that Dad could tell someone to “go to hell” and they thought they received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I spent a number of years as a traditional “defense” lawyer in the civil litigation arena. As part of that, I became involved in the early Insurance “bad faith” cases. I tried – as a defense lawyer – the first two first party bad faith cases to go to verdict in California (before Egan was tried in November 1974). There was no bifurcated trial with the financial worth of the insurer not being known by the jury until a “second phase.” That was the first thing the plaintiff’s lawyer wanted the jury to hear before the 1988 legislation allowing cases to be bifurcated to keep financial worth out of the case until a jury decided in phase one that punitives were warranted.
Now as a plaintiff’s (primarily) lawyer I hope I have a keen sense of “worth”. That is, what is the value of the case, and how much is it going to cost to get there? That is a critical assessment from Day One for any plaintiff’s lawyer. Not all cases are “bell ringers” with high 6 or 7 figure potential – real potential, that is.
I hope I carry a bit of Dad’s approach in my practice. I fervently insist on early evaluation, negotiation and even mediation of disputes. There are many reasons why. A primary one is that in my experience an early resolution means a larger net recovery for a client at a time when the money means more and can do more for the client at that point. Indeed, clients often ask me early in our discussions, “Do you think you can settle my case?” They are not enthusiastic about going through a trial, possibly an appeal, and waiting years to – hopefully – get a monetary recovery.
Key to any lawyer representing clients in civil litigation is the skill and insight to look down the line and see if it is worth all the hard work that a case requires. It is imperative that both sides work up the figures so they can focus on where the point of a “best” result lands. Maybe an early discussion about resolution is worth a try to see if the financial risk and emotional turmoil for a client can be avoided by a resolution using the diplomacy my Dad used to get a “just” result.
Guy O. Kornblum has been a civil trial and appellate lawyer for over four decades. He is the author of “Negotiating and Settling Tort Cases: Reaching the Settlement”, published by Thomson West and the American Association for Justice (rev. 2017).
It takes considerable effort and preparation to make the mediation process work. One complaint I hear over and over is that some lawyers — and perhaps clients — just don’t get it. Based on my experience, some of what it takes to prepare for an effective mediation:
Perhaps the most important trait of a good advocate who also serves as a mediator is listening to what the other side has to say, along with carefully assessing the position counter to the clients. If this is done — and it should be if counsel’s representation in mediation is to meet professional standards — it allows for a full discussion and exchange of information before and during the mediation. The chances of reaching a settlement increase dramatically.
I am not alone. In an article by the Honorable James L. Cott, a Magistrate Judge in the USDC, Southern District of New York, “The Dos and Don’ts of Settlement Conferences,” in the Winter 2016 issue of Litigation, the Journal of the Section of Litigation of the ABA (Vol. 42, No. 2), the author provides a list describing what is required to be ready and effective at mediating:
Most of these points seem obvious because they are. So why would Judge Cott repeat them? My guess is because in his experience many lawyers representing clients in mediation are not doing their jobs correctly and are taking the mediation process too lightly.
From the plaintiff’s perspective, it is a waste of time and money to participate in mediation if the defense is not prepared. To effectively prepare, the plaintiff — well in advance of the mediation date — lays out the client’s case fully and candidly. Key exhibits and expert reports, not just conclusions and arguments without evidence to support them, included.
From the defense perspective, counsel needs to prepare the client representative well in advance of the mediation so any internal caucus can be conducted and the appropriate authority obtained. The defense also needs time to evaluate what experts might be involved, and obtain those reports. That has to be done well in advance of the mediation date. It is often a difficult task because the client representative or the insurance company claims handler is not local or is just too busy to devote the time necessary to participate in the preparation process.
Indeed, as I sit here today, we just confirmed a mediation to take place in a bit over two months from now. I started the preparation process today by scheduling a meeting with our firm’s associate who will assist me, the client, and another lawyer who is involved. We will outline what needs to be done, confirm our objectives for preparation, and assign our tasks.
There is another point to consider: One of the important items on my agenda as a plaintiff’s lawyer is to assess how serious the other side is about going through the mediation process so as to ensure a meaningful dialogue. I often have a heart-to-heart talk with defense counsel to make sure the timing is right, the proper people are involved and the commitment is there. Or I might ask the mediator to make sure this is the case. Frankly, in most cases I do this myself, but I will inform the mediator of my intentions beforehand to make sure it is okay to proceed. Sometimes the mediator will offer to do this, which I welcome if I think the mediator has the presence to do this effectively. I have on occasion asked permission to make this call because I feel strongly that I will be more effective because of a prior relationship with opposing counsel.
The first article, “Making Certain the Settlement You Intend is the Settlement You Get,” by Robert Hugh Ellis of Dykema Gossett PLLC in Detroit, stresses thinking through the terms of your settlement and making sure all aspects are clearly covered so the deal you expect is the deal you get. Indeed, a deal may not be a deal. He emphasizes two points:
The second article, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation,” by Joel Levine, an experienced mediator, explains how to avoid self-inflicted wounds in mediations. These include:
Finally, Judge Cott repeats a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which is one of my favorites and which I have in my book on negotiations (see bio):
“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, and expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will be business enough.”
Good meditating. Let me hear your views. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org — Guy O. Kornblum, The Resolution Advocate