MEDIATION: An Old Idea Getting A Fresh Look

As it becomes more and more expensive to sue, takes longer and longer to get any legal-system-imposed resolution, and as people become increasingly resentful of contract-mandated arbitration clauses, more interest is being focused on an old problem-solving concept: mediation.

In mediation, a neutral third person, someone who is trained in negotiation and human interaction skills, helps people who are participating in a dispute work together to resolve it. The mediator, who has no personal stake in the outcome, helps the parties identify the issues they're really fighting about. Together, the group develops workable, creative options; they consider and make decisions from among the alternatives; and they reach mutually acceptable solutions that allow everyone to move forward. A real advantage of well-conducted mediation is that on-going relationships among the participants can be maintained --- which is especially important where family or other long-term interrelationships are involved, the industry or community embroiled in controversy is small, or similar factors.

In what situation might mediation be useful to you? Any time you become involved in a conflict that might or already has resulted in litigation, mediation is an option whose considerable economic, psychological, and practical features must at least be considered. However, there are many situations where it could be a "life-saver" even where the concept of lawsuit doesn't come to mind.

How about that contract you need to negotiate with a large company, a contract in which you must protect your interests and needs without the risk of destroying or even damaging the day-to-day working relationship? You want to sustain good connections with your business partner, even after the deal is done and your focus has returned to everyday details. What about the internal conflict between your managers, partners, employees or subsidiaries who are trying to manage recent changes? Could you use help in developing new policies to deal effectively with new products, business relocation, supplier changes, downsizing or realignment of departments? What about the new personalities in key roles at a project? These are situations where a trained, outside professional could really help you, and save everyone lots of time, money and nerve-endings in the process. By negotiating the dollar terms and details, or by helping those involved to define problems and manage/prevent conflicts, mediators can help formulate the necessary policy and settle or avoid disputes. And you will still be talking to one another and ready to work cooperatively in the future.

And, much closer to home, why end a long-term relationship where true caring once resided with a lawsuit that costs both sides tens of thousands of dollars when you could---with some time, distance, and neutral third party management---reach compromises? Or, when the family patriarch/matriarch passes on and you, your siblings and relatives are locked in disagreement about how to divide the family memorabilia, draw lot lines on the back forty, or deal with continuing care for ailing Aunt Sophie? These, too, are situations where a trained mediator could be of invaluable assistance, and preserve some future among the parties. Think about it.

Rosemary Metrailer is an attorney specializing in small business formation and transactions, mediation, and arbitration. She has been in local private legal practice for over 25 years, recently refocusing her energy to emphasize negotiation and mediation rather than litigation to resolve disputes. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and University of California at Davis School of Law. She can be reached at (916) 447-7258, (530) 265-3062, or

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P.O. Box 215, Nevada City, CA 95959