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The Lawyer as Problem Solver Award: A healthy pandemic of fair and creative solutions

Here in the U.S. this summer’s cable TV lineup includes “Damages“, a new series about, surprise surprise, lawyers. Already viewers have seen one of the principal characters, a scheming and ambitious plaintiff’s lawyer (played by bunny-killing star of “Fatal AttractionGlenn Close), use deception to trick her opponent into settling a personal injury suit on the courthouse steps, bully her associates, manipulate clients, and arrange to have a witness’s dog killed. And that was just the first two episodes.

Meanwhile, quietly and without fanfare, a portrait of a different kind of lawyer will be revealed–a portrait that comes closer to depicting the work that many lawyers perform, far from the attention of the media and the public’s eye.

On Friday, August 10, 2007, the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution will be honoring The Innocence Project and internationally respected scholar and ADR professional David Sandborg with Lawyer as Problem Solver Awards. This Award, created in 2002, recognizes attorneys for their ability to use their legal skills in creative ways that benefit clients and communities.

This Award reminds all of us of the important contributions that attorneys can make. In fact, the Award honors not only the recipients but “all lawyers who use their legal skills creatively to build positive solutions for their clients and the community as a whole.”

I was struck by the words of last year’s honoree, David Plant. (To read his full remarks, click here and scroll down to the section captioned “More About Us”). He made these observations about the lawyer’s role as problem solver:

…David Berg, in his recent book “The Trial Lawyer – What It Takes To Win”, confesses his fear that the “great war stories” of future generations of trial lawyers will begin, “And then, I looked that mediator in the eyes and I said … .” Tongue in cheek or not, David’s fear is unjustified. Trials will always be necessary. Great trial lawyers will always have great war stories of real trials. Trying lawsuits with uncommon skill will always be a valued calling. But that is not all the profession is about.

From my vantage point, each of us is practicing in order to assist individuals and institutions, in all shapes and sizes, in all colors and hues, in all moods and on all missions, to find workable solutions to vexing problems. To the extent those problems entail conflicts and disputes, the vast majority can best be solved, and will best be solved, by face to face negotiation, candid discussion, and good faith, collaborative and creative exploration of options. In assisting parties in those discussions, and in facilitating those negotiations, lawyers will continue to serve the profession’s highest purpose. The client will rise to the surface as the person or institution of paramount importance…

To insure that we practice the problem-solving aspects of our profession at the highest level, I invite each of us to study Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point”. Then, I invite each of us to commit ourselves to becoming a virus, a virus whose mission is to beget and to propagate an epidemic – better still, a pandemic. We’ll be good viruses. We’ll inspire a healthy pandemic.

We’ll each empower each client –

to take control of that client’s own destiny,
to assess candidly each dispute the client has with another,
to identify honestly the client’s real interests and real needs,
to respect genuinely the other party’s real interests and needs,
to work empathetically with all others concerned to explore options, and to attempt authentically to find a fair and durable solution.

If we dare to practice, to learn and to implement this notion, we each shall have done a good piece of professional work. And our clients will have realized marvelous – even mysterious – benefits.

What can you do to become contagious?


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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