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The Role of Specialized Settlement Counsel by Jay McCauley

From AAA arbitrator and Judicate West mediator Jay McCauley's website:  The Role of Specialized Settlement Counsel

At bottom, virtually all litigation is a tool of negotiation. The numbers say it all: Ninety-five percent of all filed lawsuits in fact settle before trial, and upwards of ninety-nine percent perhaps should. Nonetheless, the specialized and challenging task of negotiation is normally left to the “trial lawyer” – a person whose training and orientation are focused on trial preparation, and whose efforts at negotiation are almost always secondary and often ineffectual.

The problem is not that trial lawyers don’t settle lawsuits; they almost always do. But when the mission of settlement is left to the trial lawyer, opportunities for early and optimal settlements are lost.

The solution for clients is not simply to engage trial lawyers who are sensitive to the task of negotiation and skilled in that art. Regardless of such lawyers’ negotiating skills, the reality is their task cannot be optimally accomplished while they are otherwise burdened with the "role” of being the trial lawyer.

The reason for this is basic: negotiation, by its nature, is driven by an inescapable tension – the tension between cooperation and competition. To display enough cooperation to promote early settlement, a trial lawyer almost inevitably must risk the client’s competitive position in the bargain. When a trial lawyer extends a proposed resolution to the adversary, the adversary will focus not only on the advantages of the proposal, but also on the firmness of the trial lawyers’ resolve. When a proposal is attractive enough to be tempting in itself, the fact that it is offered at all undermines the trial lawyer’s apparent resolve to fight, thereby tempting the adversary to do the wrong thing: defer or avoid serious settlement discussion.

Trial lawyers know this. And a vicious cycle therefore develops – to protect against the risk of appearing to lack resolve, they naturally tend to make their opening bids extreme. As a consequence, their adversary is characteristically left with nothing but two bad options: either to respond in kind (with an equally extreme and polarizing counter-offer) or not respond at all. Further negotiation is thereby sidetracked, while each party spends more time and treasure on “trial preparation” – i.e., extensive and expensive discovery exercises – to show further resolve and thereby bring the other side to its (apparently missing) senses.

Repeated experience tells us this vicious cycle is rampant in litigation. And an extensive body of literature from the fields of game theory and cognitive psychology tells us why: litigants are playing out the consequences of reactive devaluation – the dynamic wherein an otherwise attractive proposal becomes unattractive by virtue of its being presented by the adversary. See Lee Ross, “Reactive Devaluation in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution,” in Barriers to the Negotiated Resolution of Conflict (Kenneth Arrow et al, eds., 1995).

What, then, is the solution? Police departments bargaining for a confession from the suspect really do separate the “good cop” role from the “bad cop” role. Clients exposed to major lawsuits would do well to separate the roles as well – by engaging a specialized settlement counsel in addition to the needed trial lawyer, and commissioning the settlement counsel to bring his or her skills to bear on a single critical objective: early and optimal resolution of the dispute.

Who are settlement counsel? They are, by background, experienced trial lawyers capable quickly to become intimately familiar with the subject matter of the dispute at hand. They are also more than this: specialists in the methodology of risk-based claims valuation analysis and in the science and art of interest-based negotiation. Ideally, they are also experienced in the techniques of mediation advocacy, and familiar enough with the mediators in their community to advise and represent the client in achieving mediated resolutions in cases that warrant that treatment.

But they are not the trial lawyers for the case. By design, their mission is a short one. If they do not achieve a settlement quickly, they pass the baton to the trial lawyer, along with the full benefit of their early analysis. Their role is revealed to the adversary from the outset. It is because they are nothing more and nothing less than settlement counsel that they can afford to use some needed cooperative techniques to foster early resolution. No lack of resolve is conveyed by that effort. They can demand and measure a response in kind from the adversary, and exact a unique penalty if that response is not forthcoming: their own departure. The adversary knows from the outset that if, through recalcitrance, the mission of early settlement is not achieved, a new lawyer will appear – one who is single-mindedly focused on an entirely different mission: victory at trial.

Comments (2)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
jeremy - April 21, 2008 6:24 PM

I appreciated this post. As a law student who's more comfortable making peace than war, I've been wondering if there's room in the legal profession for me. This solution seems like a good idea, especially if you had partners at a law firm who played each role. That way, clients aren't paying for two lawyers at the same time, but they're getting the benefits of both personalities and skill sets.

Vickie - April 21, 2008 7:12 PM

Jeremy, I'll pass your comment along to Jay. Both he and I agree that law firms, if they are large enough, should have someone serving as settlement counsel for every piece of litigation they are handling. We both think this is a major future legal trend and that the BigGuns (AmLaw200) should consider it essential to any sophisticated, complex commercial litigation practice.

We'll be writing a lot more on this topic, so stay tuned!

And good luck in your legal career. I never considered myself a fighter, but was always a passionate advocate. You CAN litigate firmly within your own personality and without rancor. You just have to get used to letting the frustration from the legal conflict go . . . . Easier said than done and a lifetime discipline.

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