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A Tribute To Sid Lezak: Oregon’s Johnny Appleseed of Dispute Resolution

Originally published in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, June 2006, Volume 66, No. 8

Sid Lezak died on April 24, 2006 at the age of 81. Just six weeks before, I had the good fortune to interview Sid about his life and the history of alternative dispute resolution in Oregon. Little did I know that this would be the last of my many conversations with him – conversations that began when I clerked for him in the U.S. attorney’s office in 1974. Sid is best known as the longest serving U.S. Attorney in the United States. He was appointed in 1961 by President Kennedy and resigned in 1982 during the Reagan administration. He served five Presidents.

Although there is much to be said about Sid’s work as a lawyer, as U.S. Attorney for Oregon, as a community servant and activist, I would like to share my reflections on a lesser-known part of his life, his third career as a mediator and as a champion of alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Sid’s third career, lasting 25 years, paralleled the growth of dispute resolution systems and practice in Oregon. Our state would not be where we are –one of the leaders in the country – without his passion, his relentless belief that we can do better and his advocacy for ADR. When asked about early influences, Sid told of growing up in a multi-ethnic environment in Chicago. He skipped three grades in grammar school and started high school at age 12, with peers who were 15. He learned early on how to use his humor, intelligence, charm and magnetism – traits other than strength and size – to survive and thrive.

Sid traced his beginnings as a mediator to a time long before he knew what to call it. During his last decade in the U.S. Attorney’s office he found that he relished the role of problem solver and intervener between federal agencies more than that of the traditional prosecutor. He had a sense that a mutual win was better than a unilateral win. Someone told him that he was “mediating”. He now had a name for it. In the late ’70s, Sid was exhilarated by the turf-breaking treatise known later as the “Multi-door Courthouse” by Harvard Law School professor, Frank Sander. In 1979 he convinced the Justice Department to send him to a 60-hour mediation training with the legendary Bill Lincoln at the University of Maryland. This was a life changing experience. He learned what he was doing right, what he was doing wrong and how much more he had to learn about the art of mediation. He
knew that this was his life’s work.

There were other early influences. In the late ’70s he became frustrated with settling environmental cases only to have them re-emerge in another form. No resolution seemed final. Sid sought out the Institute for Environmental Mediation at the University of Washington, supported by the Ford Foundation and directed by Jerry Cormack. He joined their advisory board and his eyes were opened to a new way of solving environmental problems. He didn’t know what mediation could or would become but, as he put it, he had “faith in the process”. He knew that third party intervention in a negotiation could change the way the legal system worked and increase participants’ satisfaction.

Our state would not be where we are — as one of the leaders in the country – without his passion, his relentless belief that we can do better and his advocacy for ADR. Sid’s career as a mediator and his mission to promote alternative dispute resolution in Oregon was launched by his 1982 speech to the City Club of Portland entitled, “Let the Forum Fit the Fuss.”

About that time he became a fellow at Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College. He read everything that he could about progressive judicial systems and the practice of mediation. Sid was infused with the zeal of a recent convert. He would show up for any little meeting in any part of the state to promote mediation. He went on to teach mediation to law students at Lewis and Clark, Willamette University and the University of Oregon. He spoke in uncharacteristically religious terms about mediation – he was “on a crusade.”

But it wasn’t easy. Sid was ready for a change in the judicial system but was way ahead of the change that would eventually occur. Looking back, he said he didn’t fully appreciate how conservative or resistant to change the legal profession was. He felt that both lawyers and judges viewed ADR as a threat to their livelihood and saw his passion and advocacy as a problem. This resistance to ADR strengthened his resolve, forced him to clarify his thinking and stimulated his missionary zeal.

While mediation is now widely accepted, it’s easy to forget what it was like in the early 80s. The word “mediation” wasn’t generally understood. It was confused with “meditation” and “medication.” Few could distinguish it from “arbitration.” There were no bar committees on ADR. Sid formed and chaired the first bar committee on ADR through the Federal Bar Association and later chaired the first Oregon State Bar Committee on ADR.

Sid likened the legal community’s perception of mediation during the ’80s to “visiting the sick” – a nice thing to do but certainly nothing that one should be paid for. While Sid did more than his share of pro bono mediation, he strongly believed that mediation was a profession, to be done by those with training and experience. His rule of thumb was, if the lawyers are compensated, so should the mediator. If the lawyers are volunteering their time, so should the mediator.

Sid was an integral part of all the major changes in Oregon ADR during the mid ’80s through ’90s and beyond. In 1987, he served on an advisory council to develop legislation for the formation of the Oregon Dispute Resolution Commission. The legislation became law in 1989 and Sid was appointed by Governor Goldschmidt to serve as the Commission’s first Chair. The commission went on to establish the first community dispute resolution centers throughout Oregon and to establish Oregon’s first public policy dispute resolution programs. The Oregon Mediation Association, founded in 1986, has now named their highest award the Sidney Lezak Award for Excellence.

When Sid described his style as a mediator, he first made clear that he was not a “head banger.” He felt that the ideal mediator does not have a fixed style but could adjust his/her approach to the case, people and challenges presented. His primary tools were his sincere interest in and love of people, his humor, and his gentle persuasive powers. He could move people from “small mind” to “big mind.” He felt that the mediator plays an essential role – that of an “agent of reality.”

Sid also pointed out that being old, “as long as you still have all your marbles” was helpful to a mediator. He would tell litigants that, just that morning, his wife, Dr. Muriel Lezak, a renowned neuropsychologist, had certified him as having all his marbles, or at least enough to do the job.

He told those he mentored that “mediation is not for wimps” and that it is “a contact sport.” During his career he mediated every kind of case, including multi-party public policy and environmental cases. He was never the least bit bored by simple cases, nor was he cynical about difficult parties or lawyers. On the many cases when the mediation resulted in a settlement, he would untie his bow tie in celebration.

Sid’s interest in dispute resolution extended far beyond Oregon. He was a fellow in the International Academy of Mediators. He participated in several Middle-East peace missions with Christians, Jews, Muslims and, as he would say, “others of good will.” He remained passionate about finding solutions to the Israel-Palestine paradox. He traveled to New Zealand and other countries with systems that he felt we could learn from. He spoke passionately about those he found to be good models.

Sid mediated his last case in March of this year, well into his 82nd year of life. He never lost the feeling that it was a privilege and an honor to be doing this work.

Frequently called the “Godfather of Alternative Dispute Resolution” in Oregon, Sid was the first recipient of the Sidney I. Lezak Award for outstanding contribution to the field, established in 1997 by the ADR section of the Oregon State Bar. He received the International Academy of Mediators President’s Award in 2004. Sid’s legacy to the state of Oregon, which he loved so much, is the great institutions and agencies that provide alternative dispute resolution services. Oregon’s ADR system is among the most developed in the nation, probably second only to Florida. Although some change would have been driven by the cost of litigation and by crowded dockets, we would not be where we are without Sid’s relentless advocacy. For that we should all be grateful.

The many lawyers Sid mentored and who have made mediation their profession are also part of Sid’s legacy to Oregon and to our legal community. Those of us who have been the beneficiary of his leadership, guidance and friendship are extremely grateful.

Mostly we are grateful to have shared the life of a person truly devoted to making the judicial system work for everyone. He was a giant.


Susan Hammer

Susan Hammer was a Portland attorney and mediator. She passed away on August 26, 2020.  She was a Fellow in the International Academy of Mediators. Susan was a law clerk for Sidney Lezak in the United States Attorney’s Office in 1974 and 1975. She went on to join the law firm of Stoel Rives… MORE >

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