Mediation is a very popular and widespread process used to resolve disputes, especially in divorce cases. In many places in Texas and probably most other states, mediation is virtually a requirement before a case can go to trial. The reason is obvious — it works! My observation is that mediated cases settle about 90% of the time, or more.
For mediation to be successful, it takes a good, well-trained mediator. In Texas, we normally have attorneys present and participating with the parties in the mediation; some other states often have the parties attend mediation without attorneys. Both systems obviously can be effective. Success, however, is not guaranteed and should not be taken for granted. Here are seven problems that can prevent a successful outcome from mediation.
1. Lack of preparation by one or both sides. The parties need to have all the information and records at hand so they can make intelligent decisions. It’s also very helpful for both parties to have thought through their personal goals, needs and interests so they know what they should try to accomplish in the negotiations.
2. Unrealistic expectations. If one party has goals or ideas that are very unrealistic, agreement would be unlikely. It is normal for the parties to disagree about things, but sometimes there is no way to accomplish what one of the parties wants. An attorney should work with the client to help them reasonably define and describe what they want to end up with. If a party demands 80% of all the assets because the spouse has had an affair or drank too much or abandoned the family, usually the case is very unlikely to settle. As the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want.” The parties need to be realistic and keep in mind the costs of not settling.
3. Lack of commitment by a party. If one party or both don’t take the process seriously or don’t want to settle, there won’t be an agreement. Both parties need to see and feel the advantages to themselves from a settlement. Without commitment, the parties won’t stay in the compromise mode long enough to settle. They can easily become discouraged if there is not a quick, painless settlement.
4. Inability of a party to make a decision. I have seen situations where we have waited two hours or more for the other party to respond to a changed settlement proposal that wasn’t particularly complex. Some people don’t handle stress well and some don’t like to make quick decisions. The parties should learn in advance how the mediation process works and how decisions are made. They need to learn to approach the process as if it were an impersonal business deal. Participants should expect to face choices and they need to understand that they probably won’t be happy with everything that happens at mediation. Even highly educated people used to making tough decisions affecting others sometimes have hard times making decisions in mediation.
5. Positional bargaining. People who begin negotiations without clearly defining their goals and needs will usually begin by staking out a territory or percentage as a starting point and leave themselves room to compromise. Sometimes, both parties figure out a middle ground for a target and figuratively both take ten paces backward before negotiating. Some people want a percentage of the property, regardless of what their needs are. For example, many husbands will insist on a 50-50 split and some wives will choose a starting point of 70% or 65% of the assets, when it may be that certain assets would be preferable for one party, such as cash in the bank (with no tax consequences) versus funds in a retirement plan (with penalties for early withdrawal plus income taxes for the amount paid). Positional bargaining can make for easier negotiations, but the results may not be very helpful to either party.
6. A mentally ill participant. There are, of course, varying degrees of impairment from mental illnesses. Medication and counseling are often helpful for a patient. Sometimes having a close family member or friend present during the mediation can help the party be in a frame of mind to negotiate effectively. Without extra support and/or meds, a mentally ill party can scuttle the effort to settle.
7. A mediator perceived as biased for one side. Unless both parties have confidence in the quality and neutrality of the mediator, it is unlikely that the mediation will be successful. Some parties don’t trust a mediator who is a male or one who is a female. The location of the mediation or the mediator’s office may produce distrust by a party. If the mediator is seen as a friend of the other attorney or party, the mediator will probably not be acceptable. Attorneys should make sure that the mediator is someone who will be acceptable to both parties.
There are other potential pitfalls for mediation, but these are some of the major ones. If you are planning to go to mediation, you should work diligently in advance to be prepared, committed and ready to decide. Keep an open mind throughout the process so you have the best chance for success.