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Demystifying The Notion Of A “Mediator’s Proposal”

hhyygEvery lawyer whose practice includes mediating civil cases is bound at some point to come face to face with the concept of a “mediator’s Proposal,” also called a “mediator’s number.”

Here’s what happens: the parties have been mediating several hours or all day and they’ve reached a stalemate. For sake of example, let’s say that the plaintiff in an employment dispute has reduced her demand to $250,000, but signaled she does not intend to negotiate further without some radical movement by the defendant. At the same time, the defendant employer’s counsel has told the mediator they do not intend to come above $150,000.

At this juncture, the mediator could adjourn the mediation, particularly if she feels the parties have been negotiating in good faith and there are legitimate, insurmountable obstacles to settlement. However, if the mediator believes both sides genuinely would like to resolve the dispute, but just can’t reach a consensus, even after considerable arm-twisting, she may offer to give a “mediator’s number” as a theoretical last-ditch attempt to reach a settlement. (I say theoretical here because most hard-working mediators will continue the process even after the mediation session has adjourned through telephone calls to the lawyers and/or corporate representatives for both sides.)

The mediator meets together with all counsel, but not the parties or corporate representatives. She gives the parties a number at which she thinks the case should settle, recognizing it is going to be less than the plaintiff demands, but more than the defendant is presently willing to offer. In the hypothetical above, the mediator might give $210,000 as her “mediator’s number.” The attorneys consider the number and either recommend to their client that they take or reject the number. Any party that is willing to accept the number advises the mediator confidentially. In this way, if only one side is willing to accept the offer, the other side is not made aware of this fact, which would surely jeopardize the willing party’s ability to credibly negotiate for a more favorable number at some later time. However, if both (all) parties confidentially accept the “mediator’s number,” she advises counsel and a settlement is reached.

I’ve heard of another version of this, in which each party confidentially tells the mediator his/her/its “bottom line” number. If the parties are within a previously agreed upon percentage or dollar amount, the mediator then discloses this spread as a “bracket” and urges the parties to find a meeting place.

I’ve never had a dispute in which the mediator gave a “mediator’s proposal” and the case did not ultimately settle at or near that number. But that doesn’t mean a “mediator’s number” is a good idea in every case. First, if you get a clear impression that the mediator is not completely impartial, then you might get a number that is skewed in favor of your opponent. It’s not always easy to tell if the mediator is biased, since part of her job is to “sit on” both sides in order to get them to come to the table. What you might interpret as evidence of bias might actually be a mediator doing a damn good job.

Second, if you and/or your client are truly entrenched in your position, and you really do not want to pay much more than you’ve offered, a “mediator’s number” could have the adverse effect of giving your opposition some undeserved false hope that her case is worth more than it reasonably should be. Until proven otherwise, I generally expect neutrals, both mediators and arbitrators, to “split the baby” in every instance. Thus, in my example above, I think it is much more likely that the mediator will conjure a number somewhere in the middle between the parties’ respective positions, than that she would give a number that is especially favorable to the defense–even if she thinks the plaintiff’s case stinks. Remember, the mediator’s job is to get the case settled, not make sure the settlement is appropriate to the facts of the case.

Finally, the possibility of a “mediator’s proposal” illustrates a larger point concerning mediation. Just as attorneys come in varying sizes, shapes and skill sets, so do mediators. It pays to be picky when selecting your mediator. Do your homework. This does not mean holding out for a mediator that is bound to be on your side. On the contrary, it can be much more important to have a mediator whose opinions your opponent (and her client) are likely to credit. But you should hold out for someone you reasonably expect will work hard to settle the case.


Six Top Neutrals Give Their Best Mediation Tips

lklklklI asked several top Southern California mediators I know personally or by reputation to share their best “tip” for success at mediation. In exchange for their labors, I promised the prestige and notoriety of being featured on this humble but aspiring blog. Several neutrals cheerfully responded and provided some great tips. The following are the best 6 responses I received:

Jeff Kichaven (http://www.jeffkichaven.com): “Prepare, prepare, prepare.  Get your brief to the mediator a week before the mediation.  Give the mediator time to read it, think about it, read it again, and call you to discuss it.  That phone call – 10 to 20 minutes at most – can be the most important time in the whole mediation process.   Be sure to discuss:  (1) What are your biggest challenges in the mediation?  (2)  What are your expectations of the mediator?  (3)  What should the mediator know about the personalities of the participants?  (4)  Is an Opening Joint Session a good idea?  And, (5), What should happen if you or the mediator think that the other has a “blind spot” or just doesn’t get something?  The answers can vary widely from case to case!  Once the mediator knows your thinking on these subjects, he can prepare for the “people issues” as thoroughly as he can prepare for the legal and factual issues.  The mediation will be specially designed to meet your needs, and the needs of your client, in this particular case.   This kind of preparation will help get the mediation off on the right foot, and almost always lead to greater client satisfaction with the result, with the process, and with your performance as counsel.”

Mark Loeterman (http://www.mlmediation.com): “Information translates into power, both in litigation and at mediation. The careful use of information is an integral part of your bargaining strategy. At the outset, it is important to plan what information you need to obtain from, and provide to, the other side so the parties can have a meaningful negotiation. Lawyers are guarded about the information they reveal. They fear giving up some advantage or losing the opportunity to surprise an unsuspecting witness. Here are some practical steps for handling information most effectively. First, solve the information gap. Ask the other side questions that are designed to buttress your position or better evaluate risks. Next, consider offering discreet information which shows strength and confidence in your case, such as an analysis of damages or a case citation that supports a decisive legal principle. On the other hand, negotiators must understand how they can protect their most important and sensitive information. If you want to learn how to perfect these “blocking” skills, simply watch a politician being interviewed. Adroit politicians use a range of techniques to avoid answering even probing questions. Information is a valuable commodity. Thoughtfully timing and presenting select pieces can yield significant concessions from your adversary. The mediator can arrange an exchange of information that is orderly and reciprocal, and can clarify the positions being taken, assuring that no party feels vulnerable and manipulated by a one-way disclosure.”

Michelle A. Reinglass (http://www.reinglassadr.com): “Some parties have difficulty giving up their lawsuit. If asked, “Are you ready to settle and put it behind you?” they may answer “yes”, but their actions belie that. The plaintiff may have difficult letting go of the one thing that has kept him/her going-the chance to get redemption, or revenge. The defendant may not want to let go because of the fear of looking weak, or setting precedent (despite promises of strict confidentiality with “teeth” for a breach). Fortunately most cases do settle, but for those that can’t, I follow them until the “end”, which is too often predictable. So, how can a party going to mediation wean themselves away from the lawsuit? First is getting reality checks about the merit, value & risks of their position. For most that will require “processing” to reach that understanding. Second, is seeing the positive picture of their life without the lawsuit as a major part of it, draining (more like “sucking out”) their energy and good health. It helps to focus on their positive goals beyond “revenge”, giving themselves their own redemption, not relying on someone else such as a judge or jury, to give it to them, which will often be disappointing; or focusing on getting a job, or performing better in their personal and business lives, or putting their energy back into running their business without employees distracted by depositions , “gossip”, or their own fears. I have often said that litigation is negative energy. I enjoy mediating for the opportunity to bring people and businesses back into the positive energy of life, rather than the drain of a lawsuit.”

Jan Frankel Schau (http://www.schaumediation.com): “Be prepared to be flexible. You can’t map out your strategy until you know what or who is driving the conflict, what path will work best for an exchange of communication and until the necessary emotion and anger and disappointment is expressed–to somebody–even if indirectly to the other side of the dispute.”

Mike O’Callahan (http://www.mocadr.com): “My single best tip for a successful mediation is for counsel to budget and make time and properly prepare for a pre-mediation call with the mediator. The call is independent for each party involved in the litigation and lets them know you have read their brief and you can question specific areas without the posturing that some lawyers feel they must do in front of their clients. Too many times counsel submit their briefs less than 5 days before and throw something together at the last-minute or they send a 160 page brief the night before the mediation. Either way the brief is not very useful. An opportunity missed to educate the mediator by counsel. The mediator has to be proactive and make sure the parties know there is a deadline for the briefs to be submitted that will allow the mediator time to review before the pre-mediation call. The call can then be used to determine what, if any, settlement discussions have taken place and the potential range of exposure for the parties before they walk in the door for the mediation. Also, it allows the mediator to ask for supplemental information before the mediation and focus on common ground to form a global resolution at the mediation.”

Hon. Michael A. Latin (ret.) (madjjk@hotmail.com): “The mediation, though designed to bring the parties together, is still part of an adversarial process. Therefore, appear fully armed and loaded with all of your ammunition. Bring all of your critical reports, documents, deposition transcripts, and even a critical witness if necessary. Remember, that while you have been living with this case for a year or more, the mediator has very little concrete information when the mediation begins. Often, the two sides give completely opposite versions of the state of the evidence on the same issue. One side may be more truthful than the other or there may be information gaps that prevent one or more parties from making a fair evaluation of their case. If the mediator doesn’t have anything tangible in front of him or her to evaluate the relative strengths of the parties’ positions or representations, resolution becomes problematic – particularly where one side is either incorrect or misrepresenting facts. Give the mediator the tools to flush out those issues during the mediation by bringing everything you have in your possession that may refute misrepresented or contested facts. This includes documents and information that has not yet been turned over. Your opponent cannot evaluate those things about which he or she is unaware. I have had several cases that have settled because one side, which had information about which the opponent was unaware, decided to share the information at mediation. Appear with all your ammunition!”

Even though you tuned in to hear from experienced mediators, I’ll add my own three cents. First, I completely agree with the suggestions that counsel take advantage of the opportunity to have a meaningful pre-mediation call with the neutral. This can be HUGE. Second, if there is a way to create and communicate to the opposition the illusion that you are fully prepared to start trial tomorrow, this can create leverage. (Obviously this is not possible in a pre-suit mediation, and difficult if there’s no joint session.) Third, unless and until you really know and trust the mediator (or settlement conference judge/magistrate), I would resist requests to prematurely share your final, bottom line offer or demand. The neutral’s top priority is to reach a compromise, not to act in your client’s best interests (that’s your job); unless you know from experience you can trust his or her promise to keep your final number confidential, I wouldn’t risk sharing it.


Is It Ever A Good Idea to Use a Transformative Mediator?

An article in the June issue of For the Defense offers guidance on selecting the best mediator for a particular case.  Among the different styles of mediator (evaluative, facilitate, hybrid), one that is often overlooked is a style denominated as the “transformative” mediator.  Why is this style disfavored?  I decided to dig a little deeper.

According to the oracle of all truth, Wikipedia, “the transformative approach . . . takes an essentially social/communicative view of human conflict, [in which]  . . . a conflict represents first and foremost a crisis in some human interaction—an interactional crisis with a somewhat common and predictable character. Specifically, the occurrence of conflict tends to destabilize the parties’ experience of both self and other, so that the parties interact in ways that are both more vulnerable and more self-absorbed than they did before the conflict. Further, these negative dynamics often feed into each other on all sides as the parties interact, in a vicious circle that intensifies each party’s sense of weakness and self-absorption. As a result, the interaction between the parties quickly degenerates and assumes a mutually destructive, alienating, and dehumanizing character.”*

This all very Heideggerian and existential, but will it settle cases?  Well, it seems that may not be the only goal.  “Success is measured not by settlement per se but by party shifts toward personal strength, interpersonal responsiveness and constructive interaction. As parties talk together and listen to each other, they build new understandings of themselves and their situation, critically examine the possibilities, and make their own decisions. Those decisions can include settlement agreements, but no one is coerced into any decision or agreement. The outcomes are entirely in the parties’ own hands and subject to their own choices. Effective mediator practice is focused on supporting empowerment and recognition shifts, by allowing and encouraging party deliberation and decision-making, and inter-party perspective-taking, in various ways.”*

There might be something to this.  In my experience mediating disputes that are particularly emotionally charged, attorneys can walk away quite satisfied with a clean, buttoned-up settlement, but the parties themselves come away feeling they “sold” their case too cheaply (or “bought” their peace at an unfair price).  Mediations that dispense too quickly with the “heart” of the dispute and rush into exchanging dollar figures based purely on estimates of damages or jury verdict potential can leave plaintiffs feeling like they haven’t been heard.  While a fat settlement can sound appealing, it usually won’t heal all wounds.  This is particularly true in catastrophic cases involving the loss of a loved one or legitimate sexual harassment suits where the plaintiff feels he or she was just “bought off,” or paid to shut up. 

Other cases can be difficult to settle where (1) there is no real money available to fund a satisfactory settlement; or (2) there are residual questions that need answers money can’t buy (“What caused the car to catch on fire?” or “Why wasn’t he fired long ago if others complained?”)  Taking the “usual” approach, focusing purely on dollars and cents, might not get the job done.  In these circumstances, it can be very healthy and helpful for the mediator to engage in the kind of counseling approach unique to transformative mediation.  I’ve also been involved in cases (some very serious) that went away with no exchange of money where the defendant’s counsel or a knowledgeable employee took the time to explain to grieving parties exactly what happened and how it happened.  Plaintiffs may want most of all just to vent frustration or anger.  A party that feels he/she has been finally “heard” can be more reasonable, making it possible to settle an otherwise impossible case to settle.

Transformative mediators certainly are not appropriate to every dispute.  For example, when I’ve accompanied very skilled or sophisticated client representatives to mediations, they look for ways to control the negotiation process, and can be incapable of suspending the factual or legal controversy long enough to permit a wounded plaintiff simply to be heard.  They want only to drive home the point that the plaintiff is wrong and she will lose at trial.  In this environment, neither the plaintiff nor the defendant will believe their needs are being met and compromise becomes unlikely.

Citing, Bush, R. A. B., & Pope, S. G. , “Changing the quality of conflict interaction: The principles and practice of transformative mediation,” Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 3(1), 67-96.


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