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JAMS ADR Insights

Alternative Dispute Resolution Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Neutral Spotlights & Profiles

A JAMS Q&A Session: Shining the Spotlight on Paul E. Garrison, Esq.

Learn about his legal journey, the DE&I efforts that are most important to him and why he views his father as his greatest mentor.

Please provide a snapshot of your legal career prior to joining JAMS. 

After graduating from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Vanderbilt Law School, I went into private practice in San Francisco, where I specialized in employment and labor law at both Littler Mendelson and Steinhart & Falconer (now DLA Piper). I then went on to work as a senior executive and attorney for 18 years. I served as the director of legal and regulatory affairs for American Automobile Association (AAA) Northern California, Nevada and Utah. In this capacity, I was responsible for managing the legal department's litigation and operations. Following this post, I served as the general counsel and corporate secretary of Transfield Services' domestic operations. I was responsible for managing the company’s legal and regulatory affairs. I was also employed by Wells Fargo for almost 12 years in both legal and management positions. I initially started as an associate counsel, handling employment matters. I was then promoted to senior counsel, where I managed litigation (including class actions) and provided advice and counsel to HR managers and senior business executives. In 2008, I established my own law firm, focusing primarily on alternative dispute resolution (ADR). My main practice areas were labor and employment, business/commercial, and estate, probate and trust.

How did you get interested in ADR?

A significant portion of my role as an in-house attorney was managing the organization’s legal affairs. I hired and provided oversight of outside counsel. I became interested in ADR after managing litigation and seeing the benefits of early resolution for both sides of the dispute. Most cases settle before trial and never see a courtroom. Approximately 90% of the cases are ordered to mediation or a settlement conference. ADR allows the parties to conserve resources, time and money. Moreover, ADR is typically a more efficient process for resolving conflict. It is very rewarding work.

What are some of the highlights of your career to date?

The highlight of my career is knowing that I am helping people resolve workplace conflict, which I have done in many roles that I have played: attorney, HR executive, mediator and arbitrator. Doing so allows individuals and entities more opportunities to focus on their respective business purposes and personal lives without the distraction of burdensome disputes and conflict, which can be draining financially, emotionally and psychologically. There is also the risk of reputational harm, an aspect of litigation that is often overlooked and/or downplayed until it is too late.

Another highlight is the people I’ve met during my professional journey. This includes former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, on separate occasions, U.S. Supreme Court justices the late Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. These iconic figures, as well as the brilliant attorneys, advocates, neutrals and judges whom I have met, have made the work that I do intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding.

How would you describe your mediation and arbitration styles?

My mediation style is evaluative. I want each party to know their case’s strengths and, more importantly, their weaknesses. The evaluation is particularly important if the case does not settle and must be tried, although 95% of my cases settle.

My style in arbitration is to manage a well-run proceeding that is businesslike and gives both parties a fair opportunity to put on their best case. I’m looking for evidence that demonstrates the purported theory of the case and hangs together in a logical manner. Self-serving testimony alone is not very helpful. Moreover, I want everyone to feel at ease, not intimidated, even in this intense setting, so that they can perform at their best.

What do you enjoy the most about mediating?

I enjoy facilitating the resolution of a dispute between parties. I regard myself as a professional peacemaker. I find myself always considering how conflict might be resolved, regardless of whether it is a matter that I am hired to mediate or if it is a global, national or local conflict in which I don’t have a direct role. I find myself thinking: What does this individual want? What is their greatest need? What compromise must be accepted to achieve what is most important to the individual or organization? If I can gently push, cajole or persuade someone to consider options and possibilities that ultimately lead to settlement, I find that challenging but satisfying work.

Are there any practice areas that you are particularly interested in developing at JAMS?

I am interested in expanding my practice areas to include additional class action mediations and complex commercial disputes. I also enjoy serving as referee and look forward to continuing to serve in that capacity.

What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

I am most proud that after decades of working as a corporate attorney and executive, I built a full-time neutral practice from the ground up. It was both scary and challenging to leave the security of a job to become an entrepreneur. That effort has been recognized and rewarded with the opportunity to join JAMS.

Did you have a mentor? If so, what was the most memorable advice given to you?

I am fortunate to have had people give me solid advice and assistance throughout my career, but I have never had a mentor in the traditional sense. However, if I had to pick, my father, now a retired union salt, is my mentor. He suggested that I consider employee and labor relations as a career when I was in high school. He said both sides of the table need good advocacy, which is essential work. He encouraged me to apply to Cornell University’s School of Labor Relations. I did and earned my bachelor’s degree. Moreover, my dad also marched in solidarity with the sanitation workers where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to support their plea for better working conditions and pay. That was Dr. King’s last march in Memphis, my hometown, where he was assassinated. When I have felt frustrated, my dad has always encouraged me to keep my head up because things always work out for the best.

Are there any organizational affiliations you are involved with?

I am affiliated with some terrific organizations: the National Bar Association (Employment and ADR sections), American Bar Association, Charles Houston Bar Association and The Mediation Society in San Francisco.

I have also enjoyed being associated with a couple of non-legal organizations. One is the Oakland Symphony, where I formerly served as chair of the board and am now vice chair after returning to the board. I have mainly served in the areas of development to help fundraise to keep music education in public schools and board development to ensure that we have the talent bench strength in terms of board governance.

Another is Black Men Run, a national organization with local chapters in major cities that promotes a healthy, active brotherhood. It helps the members move beyond being a sports spectator to setting personal running goals. This helps us individually to fight diseases and conditions that plague African American males. Regardless of pace, no brother is left behind—literally. When we are seen running in our gear en masse, it encourages others to inquire about what we stand for and the opportunity to join us.

What DE&I initiatives are important to you?

I believe that access to opportunity is important. Without access, you are shut out of a chance to learn and demonstrate your talent, both natural gifts and skills that must be honed. The way I demonstrate my personal commitment to DE&I is through my ADR mentorships, by supporting my law firm intern’s professional goals and ambitions, and fostering collaboration between organizations like The Mediation Society and the Charles Houston Bar Association, the African American lawyers’ membership organization in the Bay Area.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

The best piece of advice I received was the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as you would want to be treated by them. This principle can take you a long way in life. It also fosters an environment for keeping or restoring the peace, which is what I think the work that I do—alternative dispute resolution—is ultimately all about.

What is your favorite pastime?

It is hard to pick one, so I will settle on a few: distance running (marathons), travel, food and wine tasting, and civic/political engagement. I ran for Oakland City Council once, and I was appointed to serve on the city’s Arts, Planning and Ethics commissions.

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