Do The Facts Or The Law Still Matter In Mediation?

arbitration[This originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.]

I was recently vetting some potential mediators with a colleague whose opinion I generally respect. In response to one of his proposals, I said, “yeah, but I’ve heard he doesn’t really know employment law.” My colleague responded, and I’m quoting, “I’ve become increasingly jaded that mediators believe the law and facts are impediments to the process.” This struck me as an interesting remark and I’ve continued to ponder it.

There is good reason for lawyers in the defense bar to be at least occasionally jaded about ADR methodologies. I’ve blogged a fair amount about the frustration we feel in knowing that many neutrals feel no compunction about bypassing or loosely enforcing evidence rules when conducting a binding arbitration. In my view, this undermines predictability and erodes the process. On the other hand, at least in the employment context, it is generally the defense that seeks to compel arbitration.

What about mediation? Are the law and facts of a case a waste of time–not only irrelevant, but actually impediments to the mediation process? There’s no point in fence sitting, so I’m going to commit to the ostensibly untenable view that this is both true, and false.

Yes, it’s true. All those times I diligently pursued discovery, and groomed my case to get it in front of a mediator; all that effort I spent meticulously crafting a brief, with notated exhibits; all that time I spent explaining, trying hard to educate the neutral why we had every right to whatever it was we were looking for–all that time and energy was wasted. Utterly.

This is because, from the mediator’s point of view, the deeper my client and I are entrenched in our position, believing our stance is firmly rooted in favorable law and good facts, the harder and longer she will need to work to get us to contribute, to give, to help her bridge the wide gulf that presently divides the parties.

Sure, she read my brief. She was paid to read it. And she has to know what the dispute is about. She might even be slightly impressed with my evidence gathering and presentation of the law. But beyond that, her focus needs to be much more on the dynamics of the parties. What’s at stake? Is the lawsuit ostensibly about money, but really about jealousy or feeling unappreciated? She knows the quicker she penetrates to the heart of the dispute the better her chances of finding a solution. The law and the facts–those that support a claim or defense–might really be impediments if they’re so good for one side that there’s little fear or risk.

I’m speaking here only of the very best mediators. I’m not talking about carrier pigeons, who simply shuttle demands and offers back and forth until the parties–basically on their own–get close enough that one caves simply to avoid seeing the neutral any more. Neither am I referring to mediators who use the raised-voice-cram-down method, essentially trying to procure settlement through intimidation. Interestingly, there is a place for both styles of mediators; they actually can get some cases resolved, but only certain kinds of cases, and the process can be torturous and messy.

The neutrals truly worth their fees, though, go well beyond shuttling demands and fist pounding. They take the time to get the psychic lay of the land. They determine which of the many impediments to settlement will be the biggest challenge and concentrate their energies there. In many instances, at least in the psychology surrounding what it will take to satisfy, scare or discourage the plaintiff sufficiently to reach a settlement, the admissible facts or applicable law may play only a minor role.

* * *

No, it’s false. I promised an inconsistent, untenable view and I will deliver. From the perspective of any civil defendant, the facts and law cannot be an impediment to settlement. There is nothing more important. Sure, the venue, judge and opposing counsel can play a role in the outcome of a lawsuit, but we rarely, if ever, highlight these inputs in a mediation brief or presentation. They are unspoken intangibles.

When a defendant or its lawyers permit the law and the (likely admissible) facts to take a back seat in the mediation process, it is regrettable. If it happens, the defendant trades its status as an agent, capable of acting, evaluating and defending its actions as appropriate or lawful, for the identity of a faceless, soulless “deep pocket,” nothing more.

It is routine, in cases in which the defendant has both a solid legal defense and good facts, for the mediator to harp away on the exorbitant cost of defending the case through trial and the risk, however small, of an adverse verdict. Of course it is–where else is she going to apply pressure to persuade a confident defendant to fork over what it will take to reach a settlement?

I don’t begrudge any defendant the need to think long and hard about defense costs when engaging in settlement negotiations, even if a case seemed otherwise completely airtight. But I believe a defense lawyer’s role in mediation requires him to continuously redirect the discussion back to the favorable law and facts when the neutral attempts to discount these to bring the parties closer (i.e., get my client to pay more). It is crucial to push back against this tendency to marginalize law and facts. In most instances, they are our only leverage.

This is not to say that, backstage, in confidential communications with our clients, we aren’t completely open and honest about risks and costs, regardless how solid its defense may be. In many instances, a defendant’s blind adherence to some good law and facts would be a recipe for disaster. After all, nobody knows what a jury will think and do. But these words are exchanged in private. At the mediation poker table, the defense lawyer must resist a neutral’s efforts to treat the facts and the law as impediments.

Except, of course, when the facts and the law aren’t so favorable.

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