Because the vast majority of my litigation and mediation clients were and are corporate entities or highly successful entrepreneurs, executives or managers, I was and am rarely in a position to coerce a client into doing something it didn’t want to do.
As a mediator, however, I hear stories.
Some of the stories I hear are told by disgruntled individuals who feel as if they were coerced by their own counsel into settling their litigation during a mediation. Others have reported that they felt ganged up on by their attorney and the mediator. Some have complained that they were unduly pressured to stay in the mediation process long after they were too tired or hungry to think clearly.
These stories are troubling to any mediator who values the good reputation of the mediation process itself. They should also disturb attorney mediation advocates.
Is it below the standard of care for an attorney to subtly (or not so subtly) pressure his or her client to settle litigation? Under certain circumstances, I think it is. Here’s the bad news. If a litigant is unhappy with the outcome of mediation, he or she is far more likely to bring a complaint (or lawsuit) against his or her own attorney.
In a 2006 article in the Ohio Journal on Dispute Resolution TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT. LUMP IT OR GRIEVE IT: DESIGNING MEDIATOR COMPLAINT SYSTEMS THAT PROTECT MEDIATORS, UNHAPPY PARTIES, ATTORNEYS, COURTS, THE PROCESS, AND THE FIELD Paula M. Young, Assistant Professor at the Appalachian School of Law cites Mel Rubin on “settle and sue” cases which Rubin suggests are on the rise among clients unhappy with the outcome of a mediation. Rubin “also suggests that if a client is unhappy with the outcome of mediation, he or she is more likely to sue his or her attorney for malpractice. Id.
What might actionable attorney mediation malpractice look like? Young cites the example of one woman who told the following story:
I refused to sign several times. My attorney then began yelling at me to “shut-up and sign the damn thing” I wasn’t allowed to leave until it was signed . . . . The words, “NO I can’t sign this,” fell on deaf ears. I was so unfamiliar with the process of it all and what it meant and what the outcome entailed.
Young has a systemic solution for problems like these: procedural “justice” during the mediation itself and grievance procedures for dissatisfied litigants. She writes:
To the extent the procedural justice research indicates that parties who perceive they have received procedural justice in mediation also perceive that the negotiated outcome in mediation is fair, we would expect that these parties are not likely to later sue their attorneys for malpractice. Even when the client has little trust in his or her attorney, a mediation process that enhances procedural justice allows the party to assess directly whether he or she feels exploited or mistreated in the process.
Even if the mediation process itself lacks procedural justice and the client accordingly remains dissatisfied and suspicious, a well-designed grievance system, emphasizing procedural justice from the client’s perspective, may give the client the reassurances he or she needs. A client who suspects collusion between his or her lawyer and the neutral could seek the informed opinion of the regulatory body, without ever having to file a legal malpractice law suit.
Remember that we tend to stumble and fail when we’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely (marginalized) or Tired (HALT) and so do our clients. When I notice litigants flagging or attorneys losing their tempers, I suggest a walk around the block, a nutrition break (not eating more cookies) and, in extreme cases (someone becomes ill during the course of the session) reconvening at a later date. Remember how powerful and all-knowing you appear to be to your clients and what a strange and frightening land the “justice system” is for those who are encountering it for the first time.
There’s no better defense to professional negligence actions that the quality of your relationship with your clients. Keep channels of communication open. Demand that your adversary and the mediator treat your client with respect. At the first sign that a mediator is exercising undue influence on your client, say something, just as you would if opposing counsel were harassing your witness at a deposition. Follow these dictates and you’ll rarely if ever be worrying about calling your insurance carrier.
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