Sunday, April 20, 2008

Should a Mediator Evaluate?

One enduring debate in the mediation community concerns whether mediators should provide their own evaluations to the parties/clients. If the case is about dollars, and the parties are at impasse, some feel that the mediator can provide a "dose of reality" by weighing in with his or her own opinion on value. Others feel that this approach represents a retreat from the neutrality that characterizes the role of the mediator and inevitably damages the process.*

While I can agree with some of the points made by both sides, I personally believe that mediators shouldn’t provide their own evaluations. I have come to this conclusion primarily because I do not believe I am any better at determining value than the next person. In the context of civil litigation, evaluations represent an attempt to predict the future after factoring in all sorts of variables: the statistical range of jury verdicts (see, e.g., "Ask Not for Whom the Bell Curve Tolls"); the cost of taking the matter to judgment; the personal aggravation of dealing with a lawsuit; the parties’ personal risk tolerance, etc.

Risk tolerance is particularly important in evaluating civil litigation. It is also completely impossible for the mediator to assess its impact. Because the mediator cannot get completely into a party’s thought processes, all it is possible to do is say what the mediator thinks the assessment ought to be, not what it is.

Look at it this way: I may believe it is foolish to waste money betting on a horse at forty to one odds, or buying a Power Ball ticket. But I cannot say that doing these things would be foolish for the other person. My job as a mediator is not to prevent people from doing things I think are foolish, but only to do everything in my power to make sure that they understand the risks involved and make a knowing decision that takes those risks into account. It is not my job to tell you that you shouldn't draw to an inside straight, but only to tell you that the odds against improving it are eleven to one.

Because each person assesses risk differently, each has a different concept of value. The goal of mediation is not settlement at all costs; it is voluntary resolution. Thus, it is counterproductive for the mediator to recommend a settlement figure that differs from a party’s "eyes open" valuation.

* For a comprehensive discussion on the debate, which tilts toward the judicious use of the technique in some (but not all) circumstances, see Dwight Golann & Marjorie Corman Aaron, "Using Evaluations in Mediation," in American Arbitration Association Handbook on Mediation, ed. Thomas E. Carbonneau & Jeanette A. Jaeggi (Huntington, NY: JurisNet, LLC, 2006), 125-138.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

To Every Thing There Is a Season

Saving the expense of trial preparation is one good reason to settle civil litigation. It does not always follow, however, that more money can be saved when mediation is scheduled early in the process – before suit or soon thereafter. This is because civil litigation settles when both sides are on the same page regarding value. To reach that stage, participants need to have a "feel" for the other side’s case for both liability and damages, and how they are likely to be presented to (and perceived by) a jury. And where there is an emotional component, the parties’ readiness (or lack thereof) to put matters behind them must also be factored into the equation.

Normally, it takes time and effort to reach the stage where enough is known about the facts and the law so that mediation is likely to be fruitful. In civil litigation, this usually means that the following should be accomplished before mediation, either formally through the discovery process, or informally by agreement:
  • Exchange of all documents (e.g., medical records) pertinent to the litigation;
  • Expert disclosures, if issues are likely to turn on expert opinion;
  • Depositions of the parties; and
  • Identification of legal and factual issues likely to be dispositive.
This is not to say that the participants have to act like they are on the same page, or even know for sure whether they are. After all, mediation’s main purpose is to answer that very question. Having the same feel for value does not mean that everybody has to know what the ultimate result will be, but only that they all have a good idea of the risks that will be run if they let twelve strangers decide their case.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stakeholder Participation Is Crucial

In a perfect world, everybody with a stake in the outcome of litigation should be physically present at a mediation session. This is particularly true of those who will make the decision whether to settle or not. In civil litigation, this usually means the plaintiff on the one side, and the insurance company’s claims representative on the other. Let’s face it, litigation is more likely to settle before trial when all participants have prepared at the same time, and deal with each other at the same time and the same place.

Sometimes, however, there are pressures, usually economic, that make it difficult to achieve perfection, particularly in the garden-variety auto accident case, where injuries are moderate, liability is fairly cut and dried, and the claims rep’s office is 1,500 miles away in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

If you represent a party in such a situation, it is crucial to maintain as much of a communications link as possible between the absent stakeholder/decision maker and the mediator, parties and attorneys on the scene. Since instant decisions must often be made, it is important that all participants be instantly available.

The usual procedure is to have the absent party/ies "available by speaker phone." This can help, but, human nature being what it is, the people who are only peripherally involved invariably are not as focused on the mediation as are those who are physically present. They do not have the same "feel" for the situation. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers: How can they know what the cards are, if they can’t see how the other people hold their eyes? Moreover, sitting at a desk far removed from the action, other work usually intrudes, and events on the other side of the country are sometimes regarded as a distraction or a side show.

If one or more participants cannot be physically present, all efforts must be made to make sure those not present are, nonetheless, as involved as possible. There should be frequent communication between the participants at the mediation and the participants who are not. One hint: Don’t rely on land lines alone. For example, it is too much to expect a busy claims rep on the west coast to go to lunch at the same time as the "live" participants when the mediation itself is on the east coast; there is a three-hour time difference. A party’s representatives, when split in that fashion, should exchange cell phone numbers in advance of the mediation session, so that there will be no delays when decisions are necessary.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The "Aha!" Factor

We live in an age of instantaneous perception. By that, I mean that most of the public – those people who make up jury pools – are looking for the simplest path to a solution, regardless of how complex a situation might be.

Thanks to the magic of television, news and political ads are given to us in thirty-second bursts where complex issues are boiled down to their simplest components. Entertainment shows present story lines in half an hour or an hour. Detached reflection on the important issues of the day is rare; people simply do not have time for it.

For those involved in civil litigation, this expectation for instant answers must be factored into the valuation of every case. The side which can explain its position in the simplest terms has a leg up. The side that can present the essence of its case in such a way that people experience an "Aha! That’s it!" moment, will be the odds-on favorite. Such moments can move the value of a case significantly away from the center of the litigation bell curve. Conversely, the more time needed to explain things, the more problematic a litigant’s chances will be.

People tend to be skeptical of lawyers and their clients, so they look for the "common sense" or the obvious answer. "A picture is worth a thousand words," as someone once said. This is why, for example, an objective injury is far more compelling than a subjective one. A broken leg is more convincing than a whiplash.

The effect of this phenomenon is that in a long trial, people on juries are inclined to focus on bits and pieces of evidence, rather than on the big picture. For example, early in my career I was involved in a civil trial arising out of an intersection collision. The plaintiff had the right of way, and the only real question for the jury was the extent of the soft-tissue injuries resulting from the accident. During direct examination of the plaintiff, her attorney introduced as an exhibit a small exercise device that had been prescribed for his client, and she explained how she used it daily. On cross, one of the defense attorneys pointed out that the bag in which the equipment came still had its packing talc, indicating that it had been used only rarely, if at all. That was an "Aha!" moment, which resulted in settlement shortly afterward at a lower figure than the plaintiff and her attorney would otherwise have expected.