Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

More Thoughts from the Other Side of the Mediation Table

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I have stated on many occasions here at Musings that mediation is a great solution in many, if not most, construction cases. As a construction lawyer, there are very few cases in which I do not at least broach the subject of mediation with my client and likely with opposing counsel. When wearing my advocate/counselor at law hat, I find that mediation is a great way to allow construction professionals to see a possible business solution to their legal problem.

A neutral third party set of eyes on the problem can in many instances reveal what in many cases their attorney has been saying all along: namely that litigation in the construction world is often a zero sum game with collection issues even in the event of total victory or destruction of the other side in court. Add that to the fact that, at least here in the central Virginia area, construction contractors and subcontractors (when the problem is posed the correct way) would rather deal with the problem and retain the relationship than go to court and risk destroying a long term relationship with a valued source of money or good work, and mediation is almost a no-brainer.

Because of my experience with mediation from the advocate’s side of the table, I decided to look into becoming a mediator myself. As many of my loyal readers (thank you) have heard, I am currently going through the Virginia Supreme Court mediation certification process. After a bit of a hiatus, I have gotten into the co-mediation portion of the certification requirements. This last step toward certification in certain of Virginia’s courts involves my teaming with an experienced mediator for the purpose of both actively participating and learning the trade. As always this has been enlightening.

Even more than the scenarios I went through during training, these real world experiences have opened my eyes to the fact that in many instances the problem that we construction attorneys see between the parties are not really those that are driving the dispute. Where we see contractual clauses to be argued in Court, the parties see real world, sometimes emotion filled, issues that may have nothing to do with the “legal problem.”

Admittedly, at times I have to really think before I speak as a mediator. I have to tell myself that I can’t jump across the table and let the parties know how irrelevant the past relationship is to the present dispute. I have to sit back and be a guide and let the parties take the conversation where they want it to go. Finding the line between gentle reminders of the stakes and actively moving the parties to the outcome that I believe to be the “right” one is difficult for me as a fledgling mediator.

However, by accomplishing the facilitative role of a mediator, the parties can almost always get to the heart of the matter. After each co-mediation or exercise in this training, I look back and realize that most people don’t think like lawyers. The “heart of the matter” may not, and likely often isn’t, the words on a contract (though I cannot emphasize enough the need for a good construction contract). Often the flashpoint for litigation is found in an interpersonal encounter having little or nothing to do with the contracts that we lawyers love to discuss. Once this issue (or issues) see the light of day, the rest moves relatively quickly.

Seeing the way that parties can generally come to an acceptable (if far from ideal) solution to a problem without the “help” of a court that can only decide who wins is both refreshing and enlightening. Having the experience as a mediator and the insight gained in facilitating the parties’ agreed resolution can only help me properly counsel my clients towards a business like resolution to disputes.

In summation, after my first of these co-mediations I am even more convinced that mediation should at least be an option in almost every construction (or other civil litigation) case.

As always, I welcome your comments below. Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Construction Law Musings.

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6 Responses to More Thoughts from the Other Side of the Mediation Table

  1. After doing expert work for more than 25 years, I think mediation is a great way to go. As you state it is not generally the words in the contract but either a relationship gone bad, trust lost between the parties or some fouled up design and/or construction issues that cause the rift between the parties to get to a lawsuit status. Oh, and of course money is one of the key issues as to the reason for the issue arising in the first place. Thanks for the Article. Bob

  2. I could not agree with you more.
    I am not an attorney but a construction expert that has seen several meditations.
    I am often the one to break the news to the client that I understand about all the heartache they went through but the bottom line is there are issues that need to be fixed now and we need to come to an agreement on how to address them.
    I also let them know that everyone in the room is getting paid by the hour and we are all more than willing to listen to their stories, but it will prolong the process and cost them even more.

    Some attorneys like when I mention this and some don’t but I have found the client takes it better from me (or the mediator) than from the attorney.
    Scott Warga recently posted..Home Inspection Does not Include Underground Sewer LinesMy Profile

  3. […] As regular readers of Construction Law Musings are aware, I just recently completed my training and mentor-ship for certification to practice mediation in the Virginia General District Courts. As a construction litigator, I have found that mediation can be extremely helpful in resolving construction disputes, particularly commercial construction disputes. Now I’ve decided to try and be the one helping resolve these from a mediator perspective (one that is quite different from that of advocate and courtroom battler). […]

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