Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Trials, part 2

Here I want to talk about the emotional component of trials: both the agony and the ecstasy involved in this climactic phase of litigation. These emotions are stirred up in part by the incredible amount of work that needs to get done in the days and weeks leading up to trial, days that are consumed with pre-trial briefs and motions, jury instructions, witness and exhibit lists, re-reading the documents, preparing witnesses, etc. Time and cost considerations seem to go out the window. Whenever I am getting ready for trial, I seem unable to think about anything else. I disappear from family and other obligations.

12 Angry Men
It's not only the massive amount of preparation that turns litigants and lawyers into emotional wrecks. There is also the confrontation with the stark reality of the case itself, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, that worries you. It's like facing Judgment Day. Clients start feeling nervous, and at the same time somewhat helpless to control the outcome, like an expectant father. But they might also feel like an expectant mother, because they know this is the moment when they really have to deliver. Both lawyer and client share an awful feeling in the pits of our stomachs that stems from the realization that we are putting everything on the line in the service of our imperfect case, and the knowledge that it may not prove worthy. But we share a sense of excitement as well, because if everything goes well, and we've prepared as well as we can, we could also be on the verge of a great moment of triumph.

I start second-guessing myself before the trial even starts: did I analyze the case properly? Am I going to be able to score the points I am hoping to score? Was this case worth the amount of time and effort we expended on it? Is the jury going to understand the evidence and get the message I want to convey?

All of this emotional turmoil, second-guessing, and the realization of facing the moment of truth leads to a lot of settlements on the courthouse steps. But if the case doesn't settle there, there is still the emotional roller-coaster of the trial itself: the highs of a cross-examination question that hit the mark, the lows of an answer I wasn't expecting. The parts that didn't go over as well as I was hoping. The parts that went over better.

Last week I won a very satisfying jury verdict. So naturally I'm thinking, settlement is for suckers. There is no feeling better than winning. Plus my client deserved to win. But I've also experienced the other outcome, and it is the pit of despair. And then there are those results in between, where the outcome didn't seem to change anything, and made everyone question whether the whole exercise was worth it.

Most people enter into litigation without fully considering the impacts of trial, financially, mentally, morally, emotionally and in every other way. They haven't thought about how they would feel if they won, or how they would feel if they lost. They haven't thought about how they would feel while they were getting ready for trial, and how they would feel in the middle of it. That makes sense, because most cases are never going to get that far. But people are still looking for vindication when they file or respond to a lawsuit. They want to find out who is in the right and who is in the wrong, but they don't necessarily want to experience all the feelings of dread and anticipation that are required to obtain that outcome. The problem is that you can't have one without the other. And people should understand that it's the rare case where matters of principle really demand you to go through all of that agony and ecstasy to obtain the end result you thought you were looking for.

The point I'm making--that litigants should think through the consequences of trial before they embark on that enterprise--might seem to contradict the conclusion of my prior post, which was that we need more trials to help educate lawyers on what is important in litigation and perhaps reduce the amount of waste that takes place in prior proceedings. Here is how I might reconcile those positions: I think our system leaves most litigants feeling unsatisfied. They are especially unsatisfied when they are told to pay more or accept less than they think is fair because justice simply costs too much. Therefore I think we need to reduce the amount of pre-trial proceedings that stand in the way of trial. That way, more people who need the vindication (or the repudiation) of their positions they get from trial, can obtain that kind of satisfaction. Equally importantly, if we can reduce pre-trial proceedings, then more people are going to settle based on their evaluations of the case and their notions of fairness, rather than because they have been ground down by the high cost of litigation. That should increase satisfaction also.

Ideally, our system should allow you to try your case at reasonable cost. It should also encourage you to resolve your case by negotiated agreement, and that should happen to most cases. What the system should do less is to allow you to litigate your case to the point where you are forced to settle because you can't afford to litigate any more.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Trials

Mediation is often touted as a better alternative to taking a lawsuit to trial. It usually is; but I believe that is still the wrong comparison to make in most cases. The vast majority--far more that 90%--of civil cases are never going to trial anyway. They are mostly going to be resolved by default, or by motion, or by negotiated settlement. And if by settlement, that will happen between the parties themselves or with the court's assistance or by mediation. It's true that a lot of cases can be settled by raising the specter of trial as an unappealing alternative, but that specter is not going to materialize in most cases anyway, because eventually most parties in most cases are going to find a way to avoid trial. They have to, because the courts don't have time to try more than a tiny percentage of the cases that are filed, and because it almost always becomes apparent in most cases that it just doesn't make sense to try them.

So if mediation is not an alternative to trial, what is it an alternative to? My answer is litigation. Mediation represents a method of encouraging parties to resolve disputes by cooperative instead of adversarial means. The sooner they can switch to a cooperative rather than an adversarial approach to resolving disputes, the sooner they can avoid or reduce the costs and risks of continued litigation. That includes motions, discovery, appeals, and all the other unpleasantness of litigation. Trial is only one potential step in that process. And probably the one least likely to happen.

Anyway, the problem with our civil justice system is not that we have too many trials. The problem is that we have too few trials, and we have too much of all the other stuff that happens in litigation. If we had more trials, then more young lawyers would have the experience of knowing what is important when the case finally gets to trial, and they probably would waste less time filing every possible motion, or deposing every last witness, or fighting over every last document or interrogatory answer. Because what you learn when your case finally does get to trial is that most of that activity is of little use at that point. Those discovery motions you filed? You're probably not going to look at those. All those documents you obtained from the other side? You're only going to mark a few of them as exhibits. That monstrous motion for summary judgment? It's going to remain in its box for the duration of trial.

Years ago I pretty much gave up on filing discovery motions, and decided to do whatever I could to prevent the other side from filing them. I found that I can almost always obtain better results by negotiating the resolution of discovery disputes rather than taking them to the judge. Then recently I successfully took a case to jury verdict where of necessity and by design our side didn't file any motions of any kind, or take any depositions, or designate an expert, or even depose the other side's expert. After that experience, I'm thinking I should renounce most of those activities also. It turns out to be a lot easier to surprise a witness on cross-examination if you have never taken his deposition. And a lot more fun also. And it saves the client a lot of money. I'm not saying you can avoid discovery or contested motion practice in every case. You can't. Some of it is quite necessary and important. But most of it is not.

Maybe this should be the test for deciding whether to take a particular step in a lawsuit: is it likely to help resolve the conflict? In other words, will the action you're thinking of taking be valuable if the case goes to trial, or will it bring the parties closer to settlement? If you don't need it for trial (and you're probably not going to trial anyway), and if it's not going to help bring the parties closer to settlement, then why are you doing it? You might just be exacerbating the conflict rather than helping to resolve it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Metrics

I was interviewed the other day for a possible article on court-ordered mediation. In discussing this topic, it's hard to avoid talking about such questions as settlement rates in various kinds of programs, or how mediation programs affect the workload of the courts. We are looking for statistical measures of the success of mediation as compared to other means of resolving cases in court (settlement conferences with judges, arbitration, neutral evaluation, lawyer-initiated settlement discussions, disposition by motion, trial, etc.) That also tends to be the way that judges measure the value of court-connected or private mediation programs. We can't help but wonder which method gives you the most bang for the buck.

But those kinds of measures only tell part of the story. Mediation has greater value than providing an efficient means of resolving cases. If that were all we cared about, we could probably devise even more efficient methods of resolving cases, say creating a computer program that could recommend a case's outcome, or tossing a coin. But the purpose of courts is not to reduce their workload, or even to dispose of cases. The purpose of the justice system is rather to allow litigants a chance to have their concerns heard, and to have their disputes resolved in a fair way. And mediation can probably do that more often than the courts can. In most cases resolved by the court system, the parties never get the chance to tell their stories, or have them heard and understood. Few cases go to trial, and the vast majority that don't are probably getting resolved in ways that do not allow much party participation. In addition to providing that opportunity for party participation, mediation also teaches participants ways of dealing with conflict that can empower them to resolve future disputes without the intervention of a higher authority. To assess the value of these kinds of intangible benefits, I would put more stock in surveys of party satisfaction, rather than relying solely on statistical measures of disposition rates.

I had a similar reaction yesterday at SCMA's fall conference when I attended a panel on restorative justice. In evaluating restorative justice programs, we tend to pay attention to such performance measures as recidivism rates, or to the disparities in treatment experienced by different ethnic groups in the traditional justice system. And those kinds of statistical analyses are undoubtedly important. What they don't tell you about, however, are the qualitative differences between an authoritarian system based on rules and punishments, vs. a system that relies on obtaining the offender's agreement to make it up to the victim in some way. It seems to me we might prefer a system that puts fewer people in jail and inculcates a greater sense of personal responsibility, even if it didn't achieve better results in terms of reducing crime rates. But we demand measurable results also, in addition to whatever intangible benefits accrue from a consensual, party-centered system. Fortunately for the field of restorative justice, it can demonstrate some impressive statistics in reducing the costs of crime, as well as beginning to transform the culture of the criminal justice system.

SCMA

I really appreciated receiving this memento of a memorable year as president of the Southern California Mediation Association, at our conference in Malibu. I didn't achieve everything I wanted to achieve. Some projects are still ongoing. But I really enjoyed my year leading an organization that performs much valuable work helping its members learn more about the field and fulfill their professional goals, and spreading the word to the public about the benefits of mediation.

One of the goals that I and others have sought to instill in the organization has been to maintain a positive, cohesive, open and welcoming atmosphere within the group. I frequently found myself using whatever mediation skills I have in dealing with internal conflicts (every organization has conflicts), one more illustration of my belief that learning about mediation provides value in any occupation in which you might find yourself, as well as in your personal relationships. I am proud that we never had a contested board vote during the year I have served as president of SCMA. I always felt that if we truly believed in the process we are espousing, we should endeavor to obtain consensus in all decisions.

It was satisfying to see the organization grow in size and in the scope of its ambitions. In my last president's message on the SCMA website, I outlined some of our main accomplishments this year--including expanding our outreach programs, moving forward with an initiative to certify mediators, expanding our geographical reach, improving communications, and advocating on behalf of mediators. I also thanked the people who made all of that possible, too many to list here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Mitch McConnell on Conflict

Adopting a magnanimous tone in his victory speech last night, the presumptive future Majority Leader of the Senate had this to say on conflict in the political system:
“We do have an obligation to work together on issues on which we agree . . . .  I think I’ve shown that to be true in critical times in the past. I hope the president gives me the chance to show it again. . . . Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”
Senator McConnell's emphasis on finding common ground with political adversaries sounds commendable, and seems to represent a break from the strategy he pursued as Minority Leader. I'm not sure I would agree, however, that the two parties in our system do not have to be in perpetual conflict. It seems rather that perpetual conflict is built into the system. That is the whole point of having two parties. It's hard to think of any times in our country's history when the political parties have not been in conflict, and it seems unrealistic to expect that such conflict will end anytime soon.

The real question, and one I'd love to hear Senator McConnell expound upon at greater length, is how to deal with that perpetual conflict. How do two political parties, always at loggerheads, find a way to move forward together? Do the Republicans, now that they are assuming the majority, need to manage the Senate differently from the way the Democrats did when they were in the majority? Do the Democrats need to act differently as the minority party from the way the Republicans acted when they were in the minority? Do individual Senators from both parties need to abandon the kind of party discipline that McConnell himself attempted to enforce as Minority Leader?

Does McConnell have some ideas in mind for reaching agreement even when the views of the two parties differ, or was he only talking about making agreements in cases where the parties already agree? As Senator McConnell assumes the title of chief cat herder in the Senate, let's see if he can show us how to work together with the opposition and break the gridlock.