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How we resolve our disputes

Entries in negotiation (18)

Monday
Jun192017

Twice is nice

Last week, I was on a panel of attorneys at a continuing legal education seminar dealing with mediation. The session was part of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting and Conference and was interactive. Attendees were asked to participate by answering certain questions using Poll Everywhere. Then, those of us on the panel commented on the answers. Some of the attendees’ responses were expected. Some surprised me. One in particular was very surprising. We asked what attorneys were most afraid of in mediation. The most frequent answer by far was finding out information that was harmful to the attorney’s case. I don’t know what those attorneys were thinking, but I would much rather find out what is wrong with my case at mediation, when there is still time to try to fix it or cut your losses, than during trial when it is too late. 

Early in my career, an attorney who I was working for told me that he didn’t like mediation because it forced him to prepare his case twice. I understand that attorneys are pressed for time and that it can be expensive to prepare your case for trial, and then to do it again, maybe getting more evidence or witnesses, or researching additional legal issues. But after I tried several cases, I realized that I always thought there was something I could have done better had I been able to do it again. Later in my career, I had the opportunity to do mock trials in preparation for some big cases. I always learned many new things about the case and how a jury might perceive it, and usually had to retool my presentation and arguments. This always benefited my client and subsequent settlement negotiations or trial strategy. 

Mediation is supposed to be a consensual process where parties in dispute talk about possible resolutions or settlements. If you suddenly learn new information about your case that makes you rethink its settlement value, that is a good thing. It does not mean you have to throw in the towel and accept your opponent’s settlement offer then and there. You can ask for a continuance to check out the new information and see if there is any way to counteract it. Then you can return to mediation, or proceed to trial, better prepared than before. Either way, mediation will have served a valuable purpose, not one to be afraid of. 

Monday
Apr132015

All that glitters . . . 

This past weekend, I went to see the movie Woman in Gold. It is based on the true story of a holocaust survivor, Maria Altmann, who convinced a young attorney to help her recover some paintings that belonged to her aunt and uncle before WWII, but were taken by the Nazis in Austria. She tried to get the Austrian government to voluntarily return them to her, but they refused. So she sued the Republic of Austria in the United States. Of course, Austria claimed sovereign immunity. The U.S. District Court rejected Austria’s motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review it, and again ruled against Austria. That meant the case would return to the District Court for a trial on the merits. At that point, Mrs. Altmann offered to submit to mediation, suggesting that she might agree to allow one or more of the paintings to remain in Austria on public display, in exchange for a certain sum of money. The Austrians refused to negotiate or submit to mediation. However, they did agree to submit to binding arbitration in Austria. Surprisingly, they lost again, even on their home turf. Finally, if the movie got it right, the Austrians suggested a negotiated settlement. Too late. Mrs. Altmann took the paintings back to the United States, where there are now on display in New York City.

As a mediator, I was pleased to see litigation, mediation and arbitration depicted so accurately. I frequently encounter people who do not know the difference. Litigation and arbitration are win-lose propositions. Mediation can lead to a win-win solution. The Austrians could have kept at least some of the paintings in Austria and saved face, as well as creating some good public relations. Instead, they chose litigation and then arbitration, and lost everything, including some good will and (for them) a bad precedent.

It is not unusual for me to hear people say “why should I mediate when I know I’m going to win in court?” They think agreeing to mediation is a sign of weakness and shows that they have some fear they might lose. My job is to convince people that there is nothing to fear in trying mediation. Normally, nothing that is said or done in mediation is admissable evidence if the case does not settle and goes to trial. Many times, the parties find they have interests that cannot be satisfied by a court, even if they win. Outcomes in mediation are not limited to what a court could do. It can be a very creative process, limited only by the parties’ willingness to search for a win-win solution and to look beyond the immediate legal battle. The things I enjoy most about being a mediator are helping people to put their legal battles behind them expeditiously and finding solutions that both (or all) parties can live with. Saving time and money can often be a pleasant by-product.  

Tuesday
Jan212014

How does a mediator spell success?

Like many mediators, I am often asked how many of my cases result in a settlement, as opposed to impasse. The question implies that a successful mediation results in a full settlement of all issues, and that anything less is an impasse, or failure. However, I have found that my clients can get more out of mediation than a settlement or an impasse, if they understand what mediation really is. 

A recent blog post defined mediation as “a negotiation process facilitated by a trusted neutral person having no power of decision.” The key word is “negotiation.” Many times, the parties to a mediation tell me they have already negotiated to no avail, meaning they have not reached a settlement. My question to them, then, is two-fold: First, why not? Why were they not able to agree? And then the finger pointing begins. Each side thinks it is going to prevail at trial, or at least do better than what the other side was offering. And that’s where their negotiations ended. My second question is what did you learn during your negotiations? Frequently, the only thing they learned was what the other party was willing to offer. They were focusing on positions and bottom lines. Of course, neither of them told the other what their bottom line really was, for fear of looking weak or giving away the store. Therein lies the benefit of mediation.

Participants in mediation can tell the mediator what their bottom lines are confidentially, without fear of disclosing their weaknesses to the other side. Thus, a mediator can see whether their is an overlap, or exactly how far apart the parties really are. More importantly, the mediator can focus the parties’ attention on issues rather positions. Who should pay how much to whom is certainly one issue, but there are always others. For example:

  • court costs and attorney fees
  • confidentiality agreements
  • in employment cases — future references, non-compete agreements, or eligibility for unemployment compensation
  • in franchise and dealership cases — the territory definition, accounting requirements, minimum sales or purchase requirements

The list goes on and is limited only by the parties’ lack of perspective and creativity. This is what the mediator must bring to the negotiation process. By opening up the discussion (and making it just that — a discussion, not merely a back and forth volleying of offers and counteroffers), the mediator can focus on all of the issues that might have to be resolved at trial (or even after trial) if the parties cannot agree on a settlement. Then, at a minimum, the parties might at least narrow the list of issues that might have to be resolved by a court.

I measure success in mediation by what the parties get out of it. Sometimes it is a settlement of all of the issues, and sometimes it is merely a better understanding of the dispute — not just the other side’s position, but the strengths and weaknesses of your own case. Like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it. If you go in looking only to find out what the other side is willing offer, that may be all you get out of it. But if you are looking for a better understanding of the issues and interests involved in the dispute, I have found that you can usually do exactly that. And that is what I call success. If that results in an immediate settlement of all of the issues, so much the better. If not, it will certainly lead to a more informed and satisfactory settlement down the road, or a better prepared presentation of the issues at trial.

Monday
Dec092013

Practice!

An old joke relates the story of a tourist in New York City who asks someone on the street how he can get to Carnegie Hall. The native New Yorker responds “Practice!” The same can be said for negotiating. Whether you are using a neutral mediator or an advocate (like your attorney or agent), you should never just go to the meeting place and let the negotiations happen. You have to be prepared. Whether it is your job, your business, a real estate transaction, a loan, or some other major sale or purchase, you need to take charge.  And if it is big enough and important to you, get some help.

Attorney and sports agent Ron Shapiro, co-founder of Shapiro Negotiation Institute (SNI), has written books about how to prepare for negotiations.  He calls his most important advice the “three D’s”:

  • Draft — prepare a script for how you would like the negotiations to go. This will help you sort out what is important to you and what your goals are. What issues do you want to cover, how should you present your requests and how will you meet the other party’s potential objections?
  • Devil’s advocate — review your Draft with someone who can help you find the right way to say what you are going to say, as well as to avoid saying anything you might regret saying. Find a person who has been in your situation and can think of problems you might not anticipate.
  • Deliver — practice with a coach so you become confident and comfortable with your message. You never want to let the other side see you sweat.

If you need help preparing for a major negotiation, find someone who has been there and done that before. An attorney who has represented clients in major litigation as well as served as a neutral mediator and arbitrator is well-suited to play that role. Attorney Michael A. Pollack is one such attorney. Whether your goal is a better job, a better salary, a business acquisition or disposition, or an end to an aggravating dispute, let Michael Pollack help you to prepare and practice. Then, as they say in the theatre, “Break a leg!”

Wednesday
Aug142013

Fly on the wall

How many times have you finished a negotiation and wondered how much more you could have gotten the other participant to agree to? Have you ever wished you could have been a fly on the wall in the other side’s conference room?

My website claims that a mediator can help people negotiate better than they can negotiate on their own. I’ll go one step further. A mediator can help people negotiate better than they can with other advisers, like attorneys, business coaches, accountants and public adjusters. This is not to say that those professionals are not helpful or worth consulting. They are often essential. You can tell your attorney both the strengths and weaknesses of your position in confidence because you have a legal privilege not to have that information disclosed to anyone else without your consent. That is not true of any other business adviser or coach. Only doctors, clergy and spouses have a similar legal privilege. But even your attorney gets the story of your dispute or conflict only from you. Your attorney or business adviser or consultant can serve only one master. Your opposition will not tell your advisers their real bottom lines.

In contrast to this adversarial model of negotiation, mediation has a great advantage. A mediator can talk confidentially to both (or all) sides in a dispute or conflict, and no one—not even a court—can compel the mediator to disclose what is said in confidence. Thus, the mediator can be the proverbial fly on the wall who listens to each participant’s strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears. By hearing and seeing the bottom lines of all participants, the mediator can determine whether there is an overlap, where everyone’s interests coincide, or whether there is a gap and, if so, how large and important it is. In this way, the mediator can encourage the participants to move toward those positions or solutions where agreement is possible. The mediator can also suggest when a settlement proposal or offer may be worth exploring, and when it may not be worthwhile. As a result, the mediator can prevent the parties from leaving money on the table or from giving away the store.

I am not so naive as to believe that everyone is entirely truthful, even when speaking with a mediator in confidence. I have been lied to. I have played poker, where bluffing is part of the game. But getting people to talk in confidence often discloses real interests and hidden agendas, even when they are prepared or guarded by their own attorneys, consultants and advisers. Sometimes, as a mediator, I am most useful when people ignore me, like the fly on the wall. By simply listening to and observing both participants, together or separately (in confidence), I can spot opportunities for settlement and prevent people from giving up too soon. So let a mediator be your fly on the wall. The mediator cannot tell you all that he or she sees and hears. But the mediator can make your negotiations more productive, with less second-guessing and buyer’s remorse when it is over.