Saturday, June 7, 2008

Driving in Germany

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, I was stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany. When I first arrived at my unit in 1967, the other guys (no women then) did their best to fill me in on the local culture, so I could avoid branding myself as an ignorant Ami (short for "American"). One bit of knowledge deemed especially essential to my survival was that driving in Germany was not like driving in the United States. German drivers were regarded by the average GI as extremely aggressive. This information, combined with the fact that there was no speed limit on the autobahns, required a different mind set from what I was used to. I was told that in anything smaller than a five-ton truck, I would have to make the local drivers think I was completely crazy in order to get their respect. If I showed fear, I would be eaten! From what I could see during the three years I lived there, most soldiers got the same advice.

Not all civil litigation attorneys believe that mediation sessions give us a chance to "come reason together." Some lawyers in personal injury negotiations act like GIs driving on the autobahn: pedal to the metal; lips curled in a snarl; slightly wild-eyed look. Former President Nixon called this approach his "Madman Theory."* The goal: to terrify one’s opponents into submission with threats of annihilation.

When your opponents start yelling in a mediation, you must determine whether they are losing their temper, or using it. Are they really crazy enough to submarine the negotiations? Or are they simply trying to distract you from learning that their case is not the litigation equivalent of a five-ton truck? Your response should avoid extremes either way. Don’t yell back; don’t cave in. Instead, very calmly suggest a break in the negotiations. After the other side’s adrenaline level (if that’s what it really is) has had a chance to return to normal — and you have had a chance to reassure yourself of the strength of your own case — suggest resuming the negotiations. You will soon learn whether your opponents are serious or not, and will be better able to decide how — or whether — to get the mediation back on track.

* Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: The Viking Press, 1983), 582.

No comments: