Mediation has become a critical process for resolving large, multi-party consumer claims. Settlement of these claims is often complicated by insurance and third-party recovery. Often a brokered process is the only practical way to get to a meeting of the minds. Yet, in my experience mediations that can succeed fail because of the lawyers and mediators. Having been through a number of multiparty mediations (sometimes with more than 20 separately represented interests) and having been trained as a mediator, here are my top five tips entering into a multiparty mediation:
1. Bargain from Strength—Be Prepared to Try the Case. Go into the mediation with well-developed trial themes, a trial plan, an opening statement, prepared expert witnesses, and, if possible, jury research. Whether the mediation occurs early on in the case or on the eve of trial, your opponents will know whether you are prepared to try the case. If you are not prepared, settlement will be harder and your client will be asked to compromise more. While trial preparation is critical in any case, it is most critical where the liability and damages claims against your client are the strongest and your client is in a difficult position (i.e., those cases your client would least like to try). For these cases, any leverage your client can bring to the table is important. Creating the perception that your client is ready to go to trial will create leverage.
2. Make Sure the Right Players Are Present and Educated. Mediation cannot succeed unless each party includes a client/insurer representative with full settlement authority (or easy access to full settlement authority). For large multiparty claims, having those representatives physically present is critical. Perhaps more important is that those with authority be prepared in advance of mediation to exercise authority. It should go without mention that a lawyer should prepare his or her own client for mediation by providing a complete and honest assessment of the settlement value.
As or more important may be educating the opposing party, though this is easier said than done. Communicating your adversary’s weaknesses to your adversary is tricky. In most situations, a lawyer’s assessment of the opponent’s weaknesses is not considered credible and is written off as “chest-beating.” The only way a lawyer can succeed in communicating with an opponent about the opponent’s weaknesses is if the lawyer has worked in advance at building a relationship and credibility with the adversary.
3. Select the Right Mediator. For difficult multiparty cases, mediator selection is an important, though often overlooked, key to success. Look for a mediator who will work hard in advance of the mediation to understand the barriers to settlement (see number 4 below). Look also for a mediator who (1) has the ability to quickly grasp complex issues impeding settlement; (2) is not afraid to confront parties with difficult questions; and (3) understands the mediation process, possesses good people skills, and is creative. Avoid at all costs a mediator whose primary tool is to brow-beat, make rulings, or intimidate the parties (this never works unless the mediator also happens to be your trial judge).
4. Educate the Mediator (Well in Advance of the Mediation if Possible). If a mediator has waited until the morning of mediation to first meet with the parties, it may be too late. If there are more than a few interests represented, the entire mediation session may be consumed in educating the mediator about the relevant issues. Worse, the mediator may feel a need to take “short-cuts” and end up alienating the parties before negotiations have really begun. At minimum, the mediator should spend time well in advance of the mediation date, preferably in person, talking with counsel from each side. In advance of mediation, parties should also consider setting up a session for the mediator to hear directly from key expert witnesses. On the morning of the mediation, the mediator should have learned enough to understand the major settlement impediments and should come with a plan of action.
5. Diffuse Personality Conflicts and Emotions. If your client’s goal is to settle the case if at all possible, a trial lawyer must do what he or she can to set aside the skirmishes, grudges, or ill will that might have built up during discovery, motion practice, pretrial preparation, etc. While I’m a big proponent of setting aside ego and of building relationships in litigation, this may not always be possible. But mediation/settlement negotiations are the one time in the litigation process where consensus building is the objective. Lawyers should do what they can (swallow pride, move on, etc.) to extricate personality conflicts from the mediation.
Similarly, lawyers should assess during the mediation the degree to which personality conflicts and emotions among the parties are inhibiting consensus. When practical, lawyers should consider counseling their clients on setting aside ego and emotions. If a heart-felt apology or another message can bridge the difference between the parties, the client should be told and given the opportunity to make the apology or to communicate.