Why I Mediate

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

Since I began my mediation career just seven years ago, the question that I have heard, almost continuously, from professional friends and acquaintances, personal friends, and from relatives, has been: “Alec, why in the world are you mediating?” There’s always a follow-up statement, although this varies with the questioner. Some of the follow ups include:

  1. “But I thought you were so enthusiastic about your law practice.”
  2. “But everything else you ever did paid you so much more money.
  3. “How can you stand the stress of being involved in other people’s divorces?”
  4. “How can you stand being in the middle of an argument between two cutthroat attorneys?”
  5. “Why don’t you just retire, since you can afford to?”
  6. “If you just open your own office, I’ll be your client!”
  7. “Don’t you have enough stress in your own life?”

And the list goes on and on, interminably. After all, after very successful careers in business and at the bar, they reason, why “lower myself” to getting paid far less than I’m used to earning for the privilege of assisting people who, in many cases, don’t seem at all interested in the help I’m offering them.

Good questions, all. And my answers to those questions have been all over the ballpark, from the very incisive, to the “beats the s____ out of me” variety. And part of the reason for that was that, at the start, I had a very limited and specific reason for turning to mediation.

In 1999, my father passed away. Although I had ceased working in the family business in 1996, I was still a major shareholder and derived income from those enterprises. Almost immediately, I was frozen out and my income cut off. I was told, in effect, “you may own 45% of the business, but we don’t like you, so we won’t buy you out or pay you a penny.” And so began my personal adventures as a litigant. Including related lawsuits, the adventure didn’t end until about five years later. In the process, although I was legally vindicated and was paid off, I was also emotionally destroyed by the process and came very close to losing everything that had any value to me. I enabled a number of people from those businesses to survive financially, but at a terrible physical and emotional cost to myself.

During this litigation, I attended a number of mediations as a party, rather than as an attorney. I experienced some outstanding mediators. But I also had some horrendous experiences. On more than one occasion, the mediator caucused with the other side first, and then, in caucus with my wife and me, demanded that we dismiss our lawsuit or face a malicious prosecution lawsuit. Unbelievable! My wife was flabbergasted and wanted to go to the State Bar immediately, which, of course, was out of the question. That day, I made a mental note that other litigants needed to be spared this experience.

In late summer 2002, although the litigations were far from over, I took the L.A. County Bar/DRS basic mediation training. I already knew that I was leaving my firm at the end of that year, and thought that maybe, just maybe, I would like to mediate a bit.

So there you have it. My original reason for mediating. Now from here on, this article will take an intensely personal turn. If that offends you, I suggest that you stop here.

But there is another, and very important, sidebar that I wish to discuss. I’d like to take you back to my days as an intercollegiate debater for U.C.L.A. As some of you know, in competitive debate, each team has to take both sides of the same issue. Not surprisingly, given human nature, and ego being what it is, debaters typically think that they’ve won virtually every round that they’ve debated. For some reason, I was an exception. I was always able to leave a round and tell my coach, with great accuracy, two things. I told her whether the judge had voted for or against us. Then I told her whether I thought we had won or lost the debate. I tell you this now because it illustrates two things about how I think. Even as a teenager, I could analytically evaluate something that I was personally involved in detachedly. But, more importantly, I could also evaluate the judge, him or herself. I would watch the judge very carefully as I gave my speeches and would always have a sense of how the debate was going in the head of the judge. I didn’t understand it then, but I had an intuitive ability to read body language and facial expressions that would serve me well for the remainder of my life.

One reason that knowledge of this intuitive ability eluded me for so many years was that I was completely retarded in my ability to interpret social clues in my everyday life. What I did in debate was an anomaly, although I couldn’t see that for a long time.

There were other skills that I had that set me off from others. From the time I was a very little boy, I felt different than all the other kids. I had trouble making friends, and I was socially excluded from parties and other normal activities. But I was always the smartest kid in the class. I never had to study, to speak of, because I had a remarkably retentive memory and, to a significant degree, thought in pictures as well as spatially.

I went through life this way. I took marginal notes during law school, didn’t study for the bar exam until it was a week or so away, then, after reviewing my Gilbert’s Law Summaries, said “c’est la vie,” and passed it. As an attorney, my partners called me “the savant” and valued me most for my issue spotting and case writing. All very consistent with the talents I’ve outlined. And I was outstanding in drafting and arguing Law and Motion, again, not surprising. I again found myself quite skilled at reading the judge during my argument. But, and this is critical, my partners would NOT let me do mediations. That was because they felt that I was too conciliatory. This was because, just as I did in debate, I was quite able to and willing to see both sides of an argument. To my partners, that was a fatal weakness.

My adult life was a roller coaster of twists and turns, many of them seemingly unconnected and, to me, rather bewildering. I was enjoying the ride, but never felt that I had a complete grip on the situation.

Soon after I began mediating, a therapist suggested that I check out something called “Asperger’s Syndrome.” She thought that it might apply to me. Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found.

According to ConnectAbility, “Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurological condition on the autistic spectrum which occurs in approximately 1:300 people. People with asperger’s syndrome have very good communications skills but lack in social skills.”

The differences between Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism are profound and numerous. The Autism Society explains the important differences between Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism here: http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=life_aspergers.

According to the Mayo Clinic staff, Signs and symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome include:

  • Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is listening or trying to change the subject
  • Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures
  • Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes
  • Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others’ feelings
  • Having a hard time “reading” other people or understanding humor
  • Speaking in a voice that is monotonous, rigid or unusually fast
  • Moving clumsily, with poor coordination
  • Having an odd posture or a rigid gait

There’s one other factor that’s not often found in the literature, but which many therapists have agreed with me about. Most Aspies (an “Aspie” has Asperger’s Syndrome) have far less ability than other people to dissemble. In other words, they tend to be more blunt and straightforward. This is one of the problems that leads to their difficulties in social situations. Throughout my life, that’s been one of my most obvious traits.

Well, that was a lot to swallow! Almost all of the symptoms seemed to apply to me, or to have applied to me in the past. In some cases, through very hard and persistent exercises, I learned certain skills that most of you take for granted. For example, I emphasize eye contact in my communication, but, for me, it was a learned skill. Similarly, I walked very oddly as a boy, but I worked long and hard to modify my gait with some success.

The “appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others’ feelings” symptom has been a personal nightmare. From my parents harping on that when I was a little boy up until the present, I’ve heard that millions of times. It took me decades to realize that, during my adulthood, those comments were, increasingly, limited to my relatives . . . usually the ones who didn’t know what made me tick. I’ve made it a lifetime task of learning this behavior, because, indeed, it is not inborn for me. But, oddly enough, I think that it enhances, rather than detracts from, my mediation ability.

The reason for this is that whereas many mediators take their interpersonal skills as a given and concentrate on the case before them, I do the opposite. With my memory and retentive skills, my note taking in a mediation is minimal, especially if the written briefs are done well. Instead, a great deal of my effort is put into being sensitive, understanding, empathetic, and, when appropriate, sympathetic to each party’s legal position as well as their feelings and motivations. I retain my intuitive ability to read and understanding the individuals involved and, just as I did with debate judges, trying to figure out what’s motivating them and what they’re likely to do with a given set of facts.

So there you have my second reason for mediating. It’s because I’m an Aspie that I’m able to bring a special skill set into the room when I mediate.

I have so much more to share about this subject, but I’d really appreciate as much feedback from my reader’s as possible. It will greatly help me in determining what directions to go in as I continue along this line.

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.