Mediating Commercial Relationships

Alec was recently selected as a Southern California SuperLawyer in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

In mediating commercial disputes, once all of the frills are striped away, the dispute is very typically about money. The money can evince itself in a number of ways: one side paying the other cash; one side paying the other in specific performance; one side paying the other by refraining from competing, and so foregoing potential income, and so on. But, when the dust clears, the outcome is generally that money either does or doesn’t change hands.

A second characteristic of such mediations is that they’re almost always distributive in nature. In many cases, the lawsuit is about one party trying to collect from another that is no longer in business. And in the others, by the time that the parties have hired lawyers, filed suit and enjoyed the pleasures of litigation, each has probably come to loathe the other in such a personal way that they’d rather do business with the devil than with each other. That’s not surprising, when each side perceives the other to have broken faith, lied, cheated, and other wise proven to be completely untrustworthy. Welcome to a commercial mediation on a very typical morning

Not long ago, I walked into just such a room. The facts, while not so typical, were not too complex, either. The Plaintiff owned a wholesale warehouse, from which he sold electrical components to retailers, including the Defendants. Plaintiff told me that his cousin, who had worked for him for many years, had apparently been “back dooring” (ie. stealing) merchandise worth $300,000, and then selling it secretly to customers, including the in pro per Defendants. When the fact of the missing merchandise was discovered, Plaintiff said, the cousin confessed all, pointed to the Defendants and was fired after agreeing to make restitution. Naturally, Defendants denied all, telling me that the cousin, now an admitted felon, was giving Plaintiff this “story” to make it easier on himself.

Now a lot of questions were never addressed and/or answered, such as why the police were not brought in, but my overarching understanding is that Plaintiff wanted his money back and wanted reimbursement from his cousin, rather than his cousin in jail and the family complications that would follow.

For a few hours, we engaged in classic back and forth negotiation, but, because each side had invested in a very different reality, very little progress was made. Because Plaintiff insisted that he was dealing with thieves, he expressed an unwillingness to substantially reduce his demands, since this was a case of good vs. evil. The Defendants, on the other hand, lived in a world in which they’d been unfairly smeared and vilified, were now involved in a totally unwarranted lawsuit.

Did I accept either reality? Well, first of all, that’s not my job. My usual approach might be to get each side to understand the reality of the other side, while not necessarily modifying their own reality. Here, that seemed doomed to failure, since each reality overtly required the other party to be lying. I skirted around this several, times, but was starting to run out of ideas. Then, as is often the case, a little nugget was dropped into my lap.

One of the things I always do in caucus is chat up the parties. Among the reasons I do this is because the key to settlement can often inadvertently come from the parties themselves. In this case, one of the Defendants remarked how he was especially infuriated because the Plaintiff, his brother, himself and their families had had so many fun times in the past. In other words, he felt betrayed. I had my lever!

I caucused with the Plaintiff, and after a few minutes of the usual housecleaning discussion, I casually said to him, “I understand that you had a lot of good times with the Defendants. Sitting hear today, that seems hard to believe. Is that true?” The Plaintiff sighed, and said: “Yeah. We used to go to Vegas a lot, we’d spend the holidays with one another’s families. We had a lot of laughs over the years.” I went on: “It’s a shame those times are over, huh?” The Plaintiff agreed, but went on to say that he could never do business with the Defendants after what they’d done to him. I asked him, for the umpteenth time, whether his cousin could have been making it up, and he again said that that was impossible, but with a bit of regret in his voice.

Then I asked him the key question. I asked whether he would be willing to do business with the Defendants if, in the long run, they could repay the value of the goods and he could continue to make a profit along the way. He thought it over, consulted with counsel and then said that he would.

I caucused with Defendants, and, after a lot of wrangling, got them to agree that they’d resume business with Plaintiff and make payments toward the loss, but said that the payments were entirely dependent upon the profit they would make on their end from the product Plaintiff would provide. Several caucuses ensued, and, bottom line, both sides agreed to do $3 million worth of business as soon as reasonable, Plaintiff would bill at his lowest price, and Defendants would pay a surcharge of 10%.

At the end of the mediation, all parties were sitting together, reminiscing and laughing. It’s not something I get to see very often, but I don’t think you’ll ever see that in a courtroom.

Moving the Goalposts 2 – The Blowback

Alec was recently selected as a Southern California SuperLawyer in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

In my last blog post, I described, at length, my personal methodology in crafting a mediator’s proposal. Today, I’m going to consider what I call the “blowback,” which is the downside of the method itself. It’s something that’s always on my front burner whenever I’m actively involved in “moving the goalposts.”

There’s an important ideological divide between facilitative and evaluative mediation, and it’s one that I’m not entirely comfortable with. Let’s examine the relative strengths of each in the context of the mediation of a matter, currently in litigation, which the parties are paying you to help bring to resolution.

Facilitative Mediation

The obvious advantage here is that the solution is controlled by the parties themselves. Because the mediator acts as a facilitator and, perhaps, a referee, the his/her input is limited to being a sounding board, and, perhaps, engaging in brainstorming with the parties, whether in caucus or in joint session. To the degree that a facilitative mediator suggests his/her own ideas, it is generally in order to widen the scope within which a party can seek their own solutions.

Another “advantage” can be the lack of confrontation. Because a facilitative mediator doesn’t have a position of his/her own, there oughtn’t be a reason for any party to feel the necessity of defending a position vis a vis the mediator.

Evaluative Mediation

A key advantage here is that the mediator is able to both broaden and narrow the discussion.

Broadening the discussion can be important when each party has limited itself in such a way that there is no common basis for a settlement. In such a case, an evaluative mediator is often able to step in with suggestions that neither party may have considered, but which can form a nexus upon which each party can reach a consensus. In a similar vein, a good mediator, by evaluating the importance of various issues, can often persuade the parties to narrow the discussion and, in so doing, prevent tangential issues from becoming deal breakers.

And, of course, evaluative mediation very often shortens the length of the process, saving the parties money.

My Dilemma

The problem that I always find myself facing is that, while I almost always act evaluatively, I’m very uncomfortable with the exercise of power that that method requires. I always wonder whether, by my evaluations and resultant statements, I’m not predetermining the terms of the settlement itself. Because this invariably occurs, and re-occurs to me during the mediation itself, I feel, for lack of a better word, haunted by my own choices. Do I stay evaluative, risking that my technique will, even subconsciously, impose my opinions on the process? Or do I revert to facilitative, allowing nature to take its course, presumably getting fewer settlements and spending more time in session?

My Solution

I’m clearly a work in progress. Some of the time, the dilemma resolves itself, as the parties take a little bit of evaluation, run with it, and come to their own settlement. More often, I continue to move the parties, using evaluative techniques among the many in my mediator’s toolbox.

My Request

Help!! I’d really like some feedback from those of you reading this blog post. What’s your reaction to this post? What are your experiences in this area? Do you have any suggestions for the rest of us?

Moving the Goalposts – How To Craft a Mediator’s Proposal

Alec was recently selected as a Southern California SuperLawyer in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

As a professional mediator, some of my most challenging and, yes, enjoyable moments have come when I’ve been able to go “under the line.” That is to say, I’ve been able to do things to increase the size of the pie that was presented to me when I first entered the room. Perhaps I was able to assist the parties in re-establishing a business relationship that had gone south and ended in litigation. Or maybe I was able to provide a safe haven within which somebody was able to commence the process of grieving.

But these occasions are the exception. In mediations involving commercial, business, contractual, employment, construction and insurance issues, the bottom line is most often dollars and cents. This is referred to as “distributive mediation,” meaning that the size of the pie is predetermined, and the issue is limited to determining what size each claimant’s slice will be. In my practice, I’ve developed a systemic method (sort of) through which I can narrow down my focus as much as possible in order to be able to insert my own proposal in a final effort to close the gap and obtain settlement.

A. The Purpose of the Mediator’s Proposal

In many situations, as the parties make a series of concessions, they reach a point where each demands that the other make the final concession. There may be several reasons for this. Perhaps one of the attorneys is such an alpha personality that it is constitutionally impossible for him/her to settle without having the last word. Perhaps the attorney needs to tell a partner or an adjuster that he/she beat down the plaintiff to the very end. Perhaps a plaintiff’s attorney feels unable to make a further concession in light of the anger his/her client already feels after so many previous moves.

A common solution for this is for the mediator to propose a settlement. When I do this, the terms are simple. I present each side with the same proposal. Each side has the same period of time to respond “yes” or “no.” If I receive two affirmative answers, I congratulate the parties on their settlement. If not, I report that the case didn’t settle. I explain to the parties that the beauty of this mechanism is that each side can take one final leap off the diving board, knowing that, if they don’t do the same thing, the other side will never know that they made the leap. I refer to this as the “double blind blink.” Each side gets the chance to blink outside of the vision of their opponent.

B. The Crux of the Problem

This should be self evident. Suppose that a plaintiff arrives at the mediation with a demand of $500,000 for personal injuries. Then suppose that the defendant arrives, with an adjuster, offering, say, $15,000. As a mediator, what possible number can you possibly choose with any hope that both parties might accept it. The answer? There isn’t any. At least, not at that time. The art that the mediator must master is in reducing the size of the playing field; he/she must move the goalposts closer together, with or without the knowledge of the parties.

C. The Method As I Use It

I really do just two things. First, I assume that there’s always a settlement number. That’s because if the parties had a crystal ball and could predict, with certainty, the litigated outcome of the case, each would settle for that result, minus the cost of achieving it. Thus, the mediator, in an ideal hypothetical, ought to always have the joint cost of litigation as a buffer area within which settlement should always occur. Unfortunately, we don’t have crystal balls, and parties and their attorneys evaluate cases very differently. So the first thing I do is give each party a continuing series of reality checks, playing upon their uncertainties, emphasizing my experience, and creating WATNA’s (Worst Alternative To Negotiated Settlement) that they’ve likely never thought of. But, more importantly, I measure the playing field in several distinct phases. These phases are:

  1. The offer and demand at the outset of the mediation.
  2. The first serious offer and demand from each side.
  3. The bottom line (based upon my impressions) of each side.
  4. What each side thinks their bottom line is.
  5. The number that actually settles the case.

The first three of these ought to be easy for any experienced mediator. After all, the first is handed to you at the outset. The second ought to be available after a caucus or two. By serious offer, I don’t mean serious by an objective standard, but, rather, a number reasonably calculated by the proponent to move toward settlement. The third number is where the mediator’s art kicks in. There’s no way to teach this; each mediation provides another learning experience. A good mediator pays careful attention to everything going on: what is said, what isn’t said, the timing of attorney-client caucuses, intonations, facial expressions and body language, how devil’s advocate arguments are handled, etc.

When I do this, and if I’m on my game, number four should come naturally. Again, based upon hundreds of mediations, I try to intuit what each side actually believes their bottom line to be. Sometimes, a party will tell me their bottom line, but even then, it may only be for publication to me, rather than accurate. The determination of a party’s real bottom line is a subjective one and I have to make that call.

Once I’ve decided on number four, I move on to number five. By this time, the goalposts ought to be a lot, lot closer than they were at the outset of the mediation session. Now comes the hardest judgment. Which side is less likely to accept further pressure? Again, this is a purely subjective call. It has to be based upon every single thing that the mediator has learned during the mediation. The trick is to find the number that will be equally offensive to each side. When the mediator feels comfortable with that number, he/she is ready t make a proposal.

D. How This All Fits In

I don’t like mediator’s proposals! I cannot say that too often. It’s always better if the parties themselves hammer out their own agreement with the assistance of the mediator. However, I believe that the mediator has an inherent conflict of interest. The mediator has, on one hand, an interest in providing the parties with the best possible environment within which they can decide how they want to proceed with their matter, but on the other. the mediator is being paid, presumably, by the hour or the day. It is this conflict that impels me to use the mediator’s proposal. When I realize that a mediator’s proposal is likely to resolve a matter in short order, whereas continued, very tedious, negotiations could go on interminably (often because of non-economic elements), I feel an obligation to offer this tool to the attorneys and/or parties.

My success rate with the mediator’s proposal is extraordinarily high. And that never ceases to amaze me. If you agree with my reasoning, give it a try. If it fails, you can do as I have done, and suggest that the mediation continue.

Exhilaration and Disappointment

Alec was recently selected as a Southern California SuperLawyer in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

This morning, driving toward the University of Southern California campus, a lot of memories passed through my mind. I recalled attending the High School Debate Institute at USC, in the summer of 1965, prior to my senior year, and, as an unknown, being named second speaker, behind Roy Shults. I remembered how the lessons learned their got me to the 1966 state finals in extemporaneous speaking, where I finished 3rd, behind Roy Shults. I recall going to see a professor about something during my sophomore year at UCLA, passing the debate office, and seeing the team list on the blackboard, and there, on the top team, was . . . you guessed it: Roy Shults. Thus began my odyssey into intercollegiate debate, partnered with Roy, during which we reached the highest levels of competition and multiple prestigious awards. Debate provided me with invaluable training in logic, quick thinking and communication that has served me well in every aspect of my life since then.

I bring all of this up because an old debate friend recently sent me a video of last years national championship debate. I was stunned! The debaters were dressed like slobs and spoke so quickly as to be incomprehensible, sounding rather like birds tweeting. Part of me was repelled, but part of me felt guilty. For, you see, in the late 60s, in my prime, I was considered one of the faster talkers on the debate circuit. Not that I was proud of it. I would have rather had Roy’s oratorical skills, which were amazing. But the team needed an infighter, and I was best suited for that job. Several friends from that time keep telling me and others that I was one of the innovators of “spread” debating. If I was, it’s something I deeply regret. What for me was a tactic has apparently become an end all in today’s collegiate debate world. Truth be known, my best debating was done when I raised three or four issues in a ten minute speech, explained each logically, often with no evidence, and sustained each of them.

But today was different. I was heading to SC to be a volunteer judge for the Metro Debate League, a national program designed to teach debate to students at inner city high schools. I was excited. I knew that I was going to find a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm. Of course there wouldn’t be a lot of skill, but the purpose of teaching debate is so much broader; debate can instill a love of learning, of discussion, of seeing two sides to an issue. Even the poorest debaters can carry these skills forward throughout their lives.

I entered the room in which I was to judge. Two teams, four typical looking high school kids, each team armed with a computer. The first speaker stood up, introduced herself, and then started reading her speech – – at a mile a minute! She stumbled over every third word, and, in general, was speaking far beyond any rate of speed that was wkthin her reasonable range. All four speakers did this. The debate itself was well done by all, entertaining for me, and a completely exhilarating experience within the vacuum of that room.

But then I went downstairs and spoke with the head of the Los Angeles program and then to the USC debate coach. I asked each of them what the point of debate was if the speakers were incomprehensible (referring to the college level). They had well thought out answers about the need to think quickly, how one of their former debaters won a case before the Supreme Court, etc. But, to use an old debate term, they begged the question. You see, in my day, rapid speaking was a way to shoehorn more “stuff” into a ten minute speech. My instinct still is that the time limit is meant to force you to think through your case, just as court briefing limits force lawyers to refine their arguments. The solution for debaters cannot be to simply jam in the information at such a rate as to lose any relationship to communication; to do so reduces debate to a mechanical activity with no value outside the debate tournament. The skills that these coaches touted can be learned with a more intelligible presentation, which, by the way, is far better training for the next phases of life.

Attorneys can’t do this kind of shoehorning. To do what these debaters do, the lawyer would have to use a 2-point font, single spaced, with margins out to the edge of the page. Imagine how that would play out in a courtroom!!

I say all of this because it reminds me of what I see far too often in mediation. I see participants who arrive with an agenda, hellbent on doing it their way, with no regard to communication skills or persuasive effectiveness. Many are more interested in persuading me so that I can act as their proxy. Like the college debaters, many think that by overwhelming the mediation with evidence, they will somehow gain an advantage. Again, this reflects a serious misunderstanding of the mediation process itself.

Similarly, many mediation participants have a lot of rocks to throw, when a single guided missile may be all that is needed for the opposing party to reevaluate its position. Too often, I have to conjure up that guided missile and present it in caucus. How much better it would be if participants in mediation would stop being advocates wedded to their own positions and, instead, were able to honestly analyze their opponents’ case and figure out what it will take to move their position.