Mediation and Innovation

One of the great things about mediation is that it enables you to be creative and to try new things. Not that long ago, I had four innovations occur in one mediation day.

Firstly, on the technological front, I found myself without a flip chart in the first plenary meeting in the main room. However, I was able to make use of my new micro projector (Phillips PicoPix) which attaches to my iPad, permitting me to simulate a flip chart using the Penultimate digital drawing app. Carefully removing a picture from the wall and projecting onto the wall gave me real flexibility to note and illustrate things as we went along, throughout that meeting, while remaining seated with the parties. Quite different from standing with a marker pen in hand.

The next two innovations came at the end as the agreement was being drawn up. The first was the inclusion at my suggestion of a modification of Collaborative Scotland’s Commitment to Respectful Dialogue: https://collaborativescotland.org/respectfuldialogue/. Having had some tense communications recently which affected their ability to make decisions, this gave the parties, a number of company directors, a benchmark for behaviour going forward. They would need to adhere to it of course.

Then the parties suggested that I, as mediator, be appointed to chair the next board meeting of the company as they waited for a new non-executive chairman to be found. For the first time for me, my tenure as mediator was to be extended in this specific way. This would enable me to continue to facilitate a difficult situation between partners who had been at loggerheads but who had a very exciting technological development to take to market.

Finally, after the important ritual of the signing of the final agreement, I was able to read from an article I had just come across in Time magazine. It was a summary of a year in space by American astronaut, Scott Kelly. I read these passages: “I’ve learned ….that small steps add up to a giant leap…. I’ve learned how important it is to sit and eat with other people” (as I often suggest to parties that we should do, we had had breakfast together that morning, breaking the ice). “I’ve learned a new empathy for other people, including people I don’t know, people I don’t like and people I disagree with. I’ve started letting people know I appreciate them, which can sometimes freak them out at first. It’s a bit out of character. But it’s something I’m glad to have learned to do and hope to keep doing.”

The key players laughed for the first time that day. They got the point.

A “Chance” Mediation Meeting

Where it is logistically possible (and that may only be in some cases), I have recently begun to suggest that I meet with parties and their lawyers on the evening before the full mediation day. I usually meet privately with each group for one hour to 90 minutes. People are slightly more relaxed and that can open up the mediation. I find I make a lot of progress during these times. That means that the following day gets off to a much faster start. And, overnight, people have things to consider just from the questions I ask and the fresh thinking which occurs. It also means that I can plan the choreography for the morning with greater clarity and assurance, getting to the heart of matters more quickly. This can bring the added benefit of a speedier day all round, with a significantly earlier finish than is often the case when starting cold on the mediation day.

This approach brought about a really useful moment in a recent mediation. I had held private meetings with the parties, a big corporate on one side, and life partners on the other who were in business together and involved in a long-lasting commercial relationship with the corporate. There were serious court proceedings ongoing, with a considerable amount of animosity and bitterness owing to events which had seemingly broken the relationship. In my meeting with them, I had pointed out to the partners that there were two participants on the corporate team who were new to the situation and that it might be useful for us to use the process to enable them to engage with these new players early the next day, so that they could convey their side of the story to people who might carry less baggage.

As I ate dinner in my hotel later in the evening, the “new guys” passed by and invited me to join them for a drink in the bar. (I had been unaware of the fact that they were staying there).  I explained that my independence as mediator prohibited such socialising with one party only. However, I did know that the partners were staying in the hotel. So, later, I took a walk to the bar in the hope that something useful might happen. The partners were seated at a table just a few feet from where the two new guys were sitting. Neither pair was aware of the other. Each was enjoying a drink. I moved between them and invited them to meet, saying that I thought it would be a good idea if I introduced them to each other. A very human moment followed. The awkwardness of the situation dissipated as they exchanged pleasantries and smiles, as well as recognition of the difficulties they faced with their dispute. I didn’t allow them to get into detail but it was enough to reveal the underlying decency of those present – and for each to say that they genuinely wanted an end to it all.

Less than twelve hours later, I sat in our plenary room as the same four plus one or two others (and one lawyer each) had a frank and honest discussion about what had occurred two years ago. Much greater understanding was achieved including, as usual, an expression of regret that they had not been able to have this conversation back when it all started to go wrong. The conversation was smoother and more direct because of the chance meeting the evening before.  Fascinating. What a process.

(Events and players changed in part to preserve anonymity and confidentiality)

Challenging Assumptions in Mediation

I share examples from two very different mediations, each challenging some assumptions about what can be achieved – and how.

Number one: a dispute about interpretation and application of a limitation clause in a commercial contract. No factual dispute at all. In a large construction claim arising out of building a public facility in an overseas jurisdiction, the parties had agreed that the claim was so high (multi-tens of millions) that whatever the decision on the matter of interpretation, it was unnecessary to explore the figures. Similarly, primary liability was not in issue. Subject to a couple of further interpretation variables, if the clause provided for A, then x was due; if B, then y would be payable.

Classically, this fell into that small category of cases for which mediation has often been deemed inappropriate – or unnecessary. It was a simple point of law for a judge or arbitrator to decide. But here we were at 11.15am, after the lawyers had met with me to prepare an agenda of the issues requiring to be addressed, each party (lawyer and client) laying out its arguments in front of the other’s legal advisers and client. They were analysing legal propositions and the risk attaching, with me posing some questions about the meaning being ascribed to certain words in a contractual cap and inquiring about the advice tendered by leading counsel.

It still took several hours to explore the risks and opportunity costs, test the realism of some key arguments, and deploy “Mr Justice Not Very Bright “ in each room. For one reason or another, this notional judge tends to ask awkward questions, as if he does not understand the points being made. He proves to be a useful tool on occasion, sometimes dropping hints about how he might view things in a court. He performs the same role privately for all parties, but in different ways of course. And he always qualifies his comments with the observation that he does not have complete knowledge and that parties and their lawyers are completely free to disregard his remarks.

Incidentally, while my penchant for inviting the clients and counsel to join me for a quick pastry or “breakfast” at an early stage does not always meet with ready approval, here it worked a treat. In this session, the principals soon discovered a common bond from the past in their industry, and this gave them much to discuss throughout the day, as well as generating the goodwill to enable them to meet and complete the deal when the lawyers needed that extra commercial input later in the day. It was in their corporate interests to reach an agreement and they did, on the back of the risk analyses which the day had encouraged and empowered them to conduct.

Number two: an oil and gas employment dispute involving a very senior strategic adviser and his erstwhile employer. It seemed to be a classic for a bit of relationship-building, as hurt and humiliation were high on the list of the consequences of an unforeseen redundancy. It also seemed to be as much about ego as about money.

The two protagonists could still speak fairly amicably to each other in a kind of mentor/mentee relationship. Inviting them to meet together early in the day would have been an obvious strategy for this mediator, with an opportunity for each to set out how they saw things, get things off the chest, give explanations for what had happened, enhance understanding, acknowledge the other, and so on.

However, contrary to many of these types of cases, there was no meeting at all between the parties until they came together to sign the settlement agreement at 5.30pm. All negotiations were conducted through or with the two very able lawyers. And when the parties did meet, the clients were soon chatting away, almost as if they might start their working relationship again. They won’t but the geniality confounded many assumptions I might have made. Keeping them separate until an acceptable arrangement had been achieved had worked well.

One small, notable, deviation from the norm may have been the key in this one. I had arranged to meet each party and his lawyer at my hotel the evening before, just to “get to know” them. At the crossover point between meetings, they bumped into each other for the first time in months. They had a pleasant exchange of words. Maybe, in that informal environment and at that moment, that meeting was all that was needed to take the edge off the anxieties about what was to come next day and temper the stored up hostility of the past.

We’ll never know, but what we do know as mediators is that we are always learning and that there is no fixed way to do this.

Brick Court home to “some of the most highly regarded” mediators in the world

The sixth edition of Who’s Who Legal: Mediation Analysis published this week features over 300 mediators across 52 countries selected as leaders in the field.

The UK Bar continues to be well represented, most notably by Brick Court Chambers whose “fantastic” mediation offering includes two of our most highly regarded individuals. Our research also highlights a number of stand-out individual practitioners.

Home to some of the most highly regarded individuals in our research, Brick Court Chambers continues to demonstrate the depth and breadth of its mediation expertise and its leading position at the UK Bar. The “absolutely charming and totally brilliant” William Wood QC is described by many as “one of the best mediators in England”. He has experience mediating in Dubai, Hong Kong, New York, Johannesburg, UK and Nairobi making his practice “truly international”. Considered “an elder statesman of the mediation field”, Tony Willis is recognised for his “distinctive ability to adapt to any given conflict”. For many respondents, Stephen Ruttle QC is “a truly sensational mediator” and is admired for his “instinctive and intuitive nature” when dealing with disputes in both the public and private sector. Geoff Sharp is a door tenant at the chambers and is “one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent mediators”. He possesses “vast experience mediating in Asia and the Middle East”. Also a door tenant at chambers is Core Solutions Group’s founder and chief executive, John Sturrock QC. He is regarded as “a seasoned expert in the field”, and is recognised for “the great ease with which he facilitates high-level disputes”.

The International Evolution of Mediation

pepp-10-logo-eduPepperdine University School of Law’s Tom Stipanowich and Karinya Verghese have recently published a well researched article exposing fascinating regional differences in mediation practice which include regional divergence such as the relative use or non-use of joint sessions; how mediators handle information received from parties in caucus and mediator evaluation and opinion giving.

The article is a revised and expanded version of lectures delivered by Tom as the New Zealand Law Foundation’s International Dispute Resolution Visiting Scholar. The full text is at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2712457