My worst experience with a telephone conference mediation came in a case where all the parties and attorneys participated by conference call. I went along with it because the parties and attorneys were operating from scattered distances, and one of the participants was not feeling well enough to travel. After an initial conference call with the attorneys, I tried to convene a caucus with one party and his attorney. But as soon as I described how the other side viewed the case, the party hung up the phone and refused to participate any further! I have had people try to walk out of mediations before, but at least in a face to face meeting, I can run after them and haul them back to the conference room. But having someone hang up made me feel a bit more powerless. (By the way, I'm sure it was mostly my fault that my way of expressing the situation caused the party to hang up. But that just illustrates the problem in telephone communications. It is a lot harder to judge the effect your words are having on the person you are talking to if you cannot see the expression on their face.)
In other situations, however, the telephone format has proven more successful. In cases covered by insurance, we can sometimes dispense with the claim rep's presence, as long as the plaintiff's side agrees and the insurance carrier can gain a full appreciation of the case without listening to the plaintiff tell their story in person. Another advantage of mediation by telephone is that it can sometimes save the parties time waiting for the other caucus to end. I had a mediation this week which would have required at least some of the parties to appear by telephone only. For various reasons, we decided to excuse everyone's physical presence, and began conducting the mediation through a series of telephone calls. This format may have saved everyone time, and also allows the mediation to continue over a series of days, giving the parties some needed time to think about the other side's latest offer.