Rules for settling legal disputes

Some time ago, I travelled to Calgary to try to settle a legal dispute through mediation.  In mediation, a mediator attempts to guide the parties to a negotiated settlement. However, in this case the arrangement was that if the parties could not arrive at a settlement, the mediator would change roles and become an arbitrator, that is, authorized to impose a settlement upon the parties. My client and I travelled to Calgary for the weekend, in the expectation that we would fly back Sunday night having resolved the dispute.  My client’s view was the same as mine, that even a poor settlement would be better than a great lawsuit.  Time was also important, as my client had to resolve the dispute with the Calgary Company, before he would be free to enter into a new agreement with another company that was waiting in the wings for the dispute to be resolved. The mediation did not go well.  Every time we made progress, the opposing lawyer would inflame the discussions with allegations of “facts” that my client strongly disputed.   The point was reached where my client told me that he had had enough and he wished to move on to the arbitration phase. The matter then took an unexpected turn.  Instead of hearing submissions and rendering a prompt decision, the arbitrator  required a “Statement of Claim” to be prepared and served by a first date, a “Statement of Defence” to be prepared and served by a second date, an exchange of relevant documents to take place by a third date, examination of the parties under oath by a fourth date, and a “trial” at the Alberta Law Society Offices in Calgary on a fifth date, and indicated that a written decision would be rendered by him by a sixth date.  Under the schedule set forth by the arbitrator, it took another 11 months for the dispute to be resolved.  In another matter, I attended a settlement meeting in Edmonton with the General Manager of a biotech company.  The General Manager had to report to a wealthy individual who was the major shareholder and financial backer of the biotech company.  On the other side of the negotiating table was a person from the University’s commercialization office and a person heading up a biotech research team.   The person from the University’s commercialization office had to report to a University oversight committee.   The people in the room rapidly had a meeting of the minds and reached agreement on all issues, subject to approval of the persons to whom we reported.  It was in the reporting back that the agreement fell apart.  The major shareholder and financial backer, and the University oversight committee repeatedly came back with further conditions which made the job of settling the matter more difficult.  The first settlement meeting gave rise to a second and then a third settlement meeting, as each side tried to cope with shifting and evolving instructions.  I recently read an article regarding Federal Court Prothonotary (type of judicial officer) Mireille Tabib’s experiences as a mediator, which inspired this commentary.  The article, along with my own experiences, provides the following “rules” to follow when entering into negotiations of a legal dispute.  The first rule is to start at an early stage, where the focus is still on business concerns and has not yet shifted to “winning” the legal case at all costs.  The second rule is to focus on commercial realities, that is, what will “work” as a settlement and not the details of the claim that are often in dispute.  The third rule is that everyone doing the actual negotiating must have full authority to settle.