We’ve had over two years of virtual mediations, arbitrations and court appearances. “You’re on mute,” “Your Wi-Fi is unstable” and “Adjust for low light” are now part of our daily lexicon. We’ve been treated to views of participants’ unmade beds, overflowing closets and attention-seeking cats, and have been routinely baffled by the inability of some participants to center the camera on their face rather than their eyebrows. We love the freedom of not having a commute, we love wearing slippers instead of heels, we love being home instantly at the end of the workday. And among those of us lucky enough to host meetings, who doesn’t appreciate the ability to send overly chatty participants into a breakout room?
We transitioned to virtual proceedings because we had to get on with business, move our inventory, resolve disputes. The legal profession, so attached to stare decisis, would never have made such a radical change over such a short period of time, except that we had to, so we did.
I’m someone who for decades has longed to be at home more, and of all things, it was a pandemic that granted my deepest wish. I love being home with my dog during the workday, starting a pot of beans in the morning and simmering it throughout the day, throwing a load of laundry in the washing machine between caucuses, slipping off my shoes and walking barefoot in the kitchen at lunch.
I had a real mind-blowing experience recently when I conducted a mediation in person and at a sawmill. The long day started with an 80-mile drive north on Highway 101 through breathtaking expanses of farms, vineyards, rolling hills and ancient oak trees; my usual morning trip from my bedroom to my Zoom room can’t compete.
Before our mediation started, I was given a tour of the sawmill, which was an eye-popping E-ticket ride of the highest magnitude accompanied by ear-splitting noise louder than a Bruce Springsteen concert. Huge logs traveling through complex conveyors and transforming a half-mile later into beautiful, freshly cut two-by-fours and four-by-sixes. The smell of sawdust! The roar of machinery! I’m telling you, it was something to behold.
The tour was followed by an in-person mediation, in the same room, up close and personal, with body language, sighs, meaningful glances and all manner of cues that are often lost on Zoom. The parties met face to face with me in a small room and had a respectful dialogue about their differences. I’d forgotten, really, how exhilarating it is to be with real people instead of their digital representations. How fun it is to share deli sandwiches, potato chips and witty conversation with smart lawyers and their clients. Honestly, I’d kind of forgotten how much life there is outside the safety of my home. In-person mediation was something I’d done for years, yet it felt exciting and new.
We had a fabulous day together, but, alas, the case didn’t settle.
Fortunately, we have a super-convenient follow-up Zoom session scheduled soon, during which I fervently hope to get the case (and my laundry) to the finish line.
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