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Legal vs. Mediation Narratives and Why They Matter

I taught legal process in the context of mediating litigated cases yesterday at the American Institute of Mediation.  I volunteered my time for the singular opportunity to be a co-presenter with the brilliant Doug Noll (buy and read everything he's written; follow him on Twitter; subscribe to the RSS feed of his blog; and, listen to his podcasts and radio show) and the equally brilliant and most successful "non-lawyer" litigated case mediator in the English-speaking world, Lee Jay Berman of the American Institute of Mediation (follow him; take his Institute's courses; and, listen to whatever he has to say because your negotiation and mediation practice will improve 100% immediately).

Because Doug, Lee Jay and I spent the entire day yesterday talking about legal rights and remedies as well as legal procedure in the context of negotiating the resolution of litigation, I was once again engaged in the soul-searching that always accompanies situations challenging my loyalty to the adversarial/rights-remedies business and stimulates my enthusiasm for the interest-based, consensus building, collaborative, problem solving negotiated resolution business. 

I was looking for something else this morning when I once again stumbled over one of my favorite articles on this issue, Client Counseling, Mediation and Alternative Narratives of Dispute Resolution (Spring 2004) 10 Clinical L. Rev 833 by Law Professor Robert Rubinson.

Before giving you an excerpt that should tempt you to download the article and put it on your nightstand, I want to say this: I work on the razor's edge of my lifetime career-investment in the adversarial system, on the one hand, and my new'ish passion for collaborative, interest-based negotiated resolutions to disputes, on the other.  I spent 25 years as a warrior who rightfully took advantage of my adversary's weaknesses.  I was not a problem solver.  I was engaged in a fight to the death on a pre-determined field with rules in which I believed for causes I knew to be just.  As a result, I approach all alternatives to the adversarial process with a litigator's skepticism, wariness and world-wearyness.  There is no kumbya in me.  It is only my intellectual curiosity that survived the beating my heart took from the world-weary, cynical, grizzled old defense attorneys who taught me how to practice law (as adversaries testing my mettle) in Sacramento thirty years ago.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

The engine that drives litigation's morality tale is that conflict resolution is a contest between parties, one of whom necessarily represents good and the other necessarily represents bad.  As a result, litigation seeks to designate who has committed moral transgressions by breaching legal norms (or, from the perspective of the defendant, who wrongfully accuses others of having done so).

The Story of Mediation subverts these norms by transforming this familiar morality tale into a story of collaboration. This subversion begins through how mediation conceives of conflict itself. Implicit in the Story of Litigation is that conflict represents a breach of the norms of conduct, thereby ripping the social fabric in some way large or small. In contrast, in mediation, conflict is a norm of conduct, a necessary byproduct of humans having distinct experiences and personalities and needs. Conflict is thus not necessarily a disruption of the moral order, and, indeed, can sometimes be productive.

Mediation's normalization of conflict, however, cannot eliminate what appears to be a deep-seated human need to understand experience in terms of struggles and strivings. Humans have great difficulty perceiving events as generated by causes beyond our control - what Amsterdam and Bruner evocatively describe as an inability to see events as "One Damn Thing After Another." We must instead "shape them into strivings and adversities, contests and rewards, vanquishings and setbacks."

The meta-narrative of litigation maps these "strivings" and "vanquishings" onto the struggle of one party against another and enlists the aid of the court to vindicate justice on behalf of the wronged party. In contrast, the meta-narrative of mediation seeks to map these "strivings" and "vanquishings" onto a collaborative struggle to resolve conflict. This narrative casts all participants as players in a process - collaboration - that is focused on reaching the common goal of successfully resolving or transforming a dispute. This story has moral entailments because collaboration is accepted as a social and moral good. Unlike litigation, however, this story does not generate a binary moral universe that divides the good from the bad, but, rather, a universe that values collaborative striving to achieve common ground and resolution.

This story places mediators in a role that is very different from the role played by decision-makers in litigation. Rather than being heroes of moral vindication to whom wronged parties appeal for justice, mediators promote and model collaborative striving to overcome conflict. This plays out in many accepted techniques in mediation. Mediators, for example, often seek "commitment" from participants to the process of mediation, although mediators are careful not to extend this commitment to a commitment to agree. This commitment to process is a proxy for a commitment to collaborate to seek to resolve conflict, thus incrementally moving participants away from contested litigation and towards collaborative problem solving. Similarly, mediators often "reframe" participants' statements in order to emphasize "common ground." This is also an effort to move parties away from a morally charged contest and into collaboration. Finally, mediators encourage and model collaboration through a positive message of optimism and progress towards resolution, even when (or, perhaps, especially when) impasse appears likely.

Moreover, mediation approaches the narrative movement from Efforts to Restoration of Steady State in a very different way than litigation. Whether the Steady State is Restored or Transformed constitutes what I have earlier characterized as a "fork in the road" in the Austere Definition of Narrative. The very language through which litigants seek redress of grievances - to "be made whole," "to pay your debt society" (with its implication that payment of the debt would return the ledger to balance), even the word "remedy" - implies Restoration. In contrast, mediation tends to reject Restoration as a state to which the parties (and society as whole) should or even can return. Rather, mediation seeks Transformation on the part of all disputants so that conflict is resolved.  It does so by embracing the notion that perceptions of the world (including perceptions of the actions of others) are unstable, thus enabling parties to appreciate alternative perspectives as a way to promote resolution of conflict. Mediation, therefore, does embody a plot that adheres to the narrative movement described by the Austere Definition, albeit in ways that are utterly alien to the morality tale of the story of litigation. The story of mediation can be characterized as follows:

Steady State: Whatever Each Party Views as Pre-Conflict

Trouble: Whatever Each Party Views as Constituting Conflict

Efforts: Collaborative Striving To Overcome Conflict as Modeled and Promoted by Mediator

Transformation of Steady State: A New Relationship Among Parties

Coda: Moving On

                           *                          *                        *

Practitioners of mediation have historically had an uneasy relationship with the practicing bar. Many view lawyers as conflict-intensifiers due to training, temperament, and financial self-interest.  Indeed, the very rise of mediation may in part be attributable to its promise of moving lawyers to the margins and offering parties a direct voice in resolving their own controversies. As a result, lawyers are viewed in some quarters as at best necessary evils in mediation. Some state statutes go further and empower mediators to ban lawyers from mediation sessions.  Moreover, to the extent lawyers in recent years increasingly participate in mediation, the type of mediation favored or assumed to be "mediation" by lawyers - so-called "evaluative mediation" - tends to strip mediation of its more distinctive characteristics. What often remains is something very familiar: an adversarial hearing that adheres to the story of litigation and that, while perhaps resolving conflict, does not differ in a meaningful way from litigation.

Even so, growing numbers of commentators both in and out of the world of mediation view lawyers as potentially constructive forces for promoting the resolution of conflict. Robert J. Gilson and Robert H. Mnookin, for example, drawing on game theory, see a corps of attorneys who adopt a "cooperative" stance as having "the potential for damping rather than exacerbating the conflictual character of litigation." In a different but related vein, Carrie Menkel-Meadow and others hope to replace the prevailing lawyer-as-zealous-advocate paradigm with the notion that effective lawyers are problem solvers. Lawyers as problem solvers bear little resemblance to traditional advocates; they perceive "cases" as embodying a set of needs and interests that might be resolved (or not) depending on the choice of dispute resolution process.

Lawyers can indeed play a crucial role in counseling clients about and appearing with clients in mediation. Lawyers, for example, can help neutralize "power imbalances" between parties that mediation can recapitulate or exacerbate  and can protect clients from the subtle or not so subtle coercion "bad" mediators can exercise. Lawyers, however, must confront an initial challenge before getting to these issues: how can clients even consider or think about mediation when the morality tale they have in their heads is something mediation hopes to transform?

 Dislodging the Litigation Narrative

 Given that litigation and mediation embody different narratives and thereby generate different disputes, there seems to be a straightforward way for lawyers to encourage clients to understand and consider a mediation alternative. Lawyers can advise a client about how different modes of dispute resolution generate different disputes, describe different dispute resolution processes that might be available, and present how a dispute might look when filtered through the processes of each.

But it is not that easy. Clients typically come to a lawyer's office with litigation narratives in place. These narratives run deep. After all, it is extraordinarily difficult to deconstruct one's own experience, for it seems transparent to us that what we have experienced is what is. As a result, to most disputants, the binary moral universe of the litigation narrative is the universe, with the goods and evils and rights and wrongs arrayed as they are. Yet in order to make room for the mediation alternative, lawyers must dislodge this narrative, or at least encourage clients to consider the possibility of alternatives.

One way of understanding how lawyers can do so is to consider the fluid nature of conflict. A "dispute" or "controversy" is not a unitary, static "thing," but rather an assemblage of competing stories, motivations, and interests. Disputes are dynamic, ever-changing phenomena. They undergo transformations: "individuals define and redefine their perceptions of experience and the nature of their grievances in response to the communications, behavior, and expectations of a range of people, including opponents, agents, authority figures, companions, and intimates." 

As this process unfolds, lawyers inevitably shape disputants' perceptions of a controversy in a multitude of ways,  including the moral dimension of disputes and the attribution of responsibility.  Indeed, attorneys appear at critical junctures in the life of a controversy. In an influential article, William L.F. Felstiner, Richard L. Abel, and Austin Sarat argue that disputes proceed through a series of dynamic stages they call "naming, blaming, and claiming." After an "injurious experience" is perceived and "named," the experience may be transformed into a grievance - a "blaming" - "when a person attributes an injury to the fault of another individual or social entity."

The grievance may then be transformed into a "claim" when someone with a grievance "voices it to the person or entity believed to be responsible and asks for some remedy."  The final stage - a transformation from "claim" to "dispute" - occurs when a claim is explicitly or implicitly rejected.  All of these stages are themselves unstable and open to reinterpretation by those who are experiencing them. Lawyers usually enter the scene at the "claiming" or "disputing" stage just when a disputant is poised (or forced) to turn to a more formalized process of dispute resolution.

This model does not require or assume a particular process through which disputes should be resolved. Nevertheless, given the cultural norms of litigation and the stories told within those norms, most disputants conceptualize their naming, blaming, claiming, and disputing through the story of litigation. As Felstiner, Abel and Sarat put it, "institutional patterns restrict the options open to disputants" who wish to pursue a "claim," and the "normal" way to resolve disputes has long been litigation.

"Institutional patterns," however, are not set in stone. Indeed, in the twenty odd years since the appearance of the Felstiner, Abel and Sarat article, the growth of mediation has generated new options for dispute resolution. Lawyers, as the cultural actors with prime responsibility for enacting ways of "claiming" and "disputing," are especially well positioned to encourage clients to consider fresh "patterns" of dispute resolution such as mediation. While no doubt an enormous challenge, experience suggests that this is not an impossible one. The very fact that mediation can and does work with some frequency despite the force of the litigation narrative demonstrates that lawyers have at least a chance to dislodge the "truth" of the litigation frame when interacting with clients.

A number of factors favor client receptivity to mediation even prior to client counseling. First, conceptions of conflict tend to be fluid and subject to reinterpretation. There is thus tension between the persistence and rigidity of the litigation narrative and the continuing instability and reinterpretation of our experience. Tension in this context, however, is not necessarily a bad thing; lawyers can build upon the instability of conflict in order to encourage clients to reinterpret conflict in terms of alternative narratives. Second, the unsavory dimensions of litigation - its almost inevitable expense, delay, acrimony, and uncertainty, among other things - are commonplaces in popular culture and act as a powerful incentive to embrace alternatives. Moreover, lawyers are, by definition, situated apart from clients' circumstances. This added distance enables a lawyer to see a client's perspective as a perspective, with other perspectives and stories potentially in play.

Comments (2)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Don Philbin - November 22, 2009 6:23 PM

What a team! I hope the audience appreciated the stars they were watching.

https://pinterest.com - December 25, 2013 2:15 PM

Today, I went to the beachfront with my children.
I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said "You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear." She
placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic
but I had to tell someone!

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