Construction v. Demolition

When you get right down to it, the construction process is fascinating.  Contractors take a set of drawings and with the right labor, equipment and materials they can build just about anything.  My six year old grandson can’t take his eyes off diggers, loaders and backhoes. I can’t blame him. Watching heavy equipment in action is completely mesmerizing.    

I have one of the only third floor offices in Livermore.  Outside my window is an unobstructed view of the Livermore hills in all their green and gold splendor.  In the foreground was a small commercial oil change building – until recently. One day I left my office and the building was there just like it had always been for years and years.  The next day I looked out my window and saw something completely different – a pile of rubble and a large excavator.  

What happened?  The building was being torn down in the name of progress, and a new structure is planned for its space.  The overnight change was truly dramatic. I know it takes months to put up a building, starting with the planning, drawings, permits and then doing the foundation work, underground utilities, framing, stucco, roof, windows, interior walls and finishes.  Everything has to be carefully sequenced and orchestrated. You can’t put the roof on until the walls are built. You can’t install windows without a wall or foundation. 

But demolition is completely different.  The excavator shows up, hooks its bucket on to the roof of the building and presto – down it comes.  With a good sized excavator you can easily take down a small or medium-sized commercial building in a day (or less).  

Why the big difference between construction and demolition?  Because effective construction requires everything to be done just right and in the right sequence.  With demolition everything happens all at once. Demolition requires relatively little planning, very little sequencing and no delicate operations.

As with construction, a successful mediation requires advance planning and legwork.  The dispute has to be ripe for resolution – if key questions are unanswered the case may not be ready for resolution.  Advance preparation includes identifying necessary decision makers; selecting an appropriate neutral; scheduling; and exchange of key documents and briefs.  A skillful neutral will carefully review the briefs, identify potential gaps in the documentation and discuss them (as appropriate) with counsel. The mediation timing must be appropriate to the case; the correct parties must be present; any insurance issues must be identified.  These are key tools that the mediator works with.   

Few structures get built in a day, but the large majority of mediations are done in a day.  Even though a mediation time frame is far more compressed than a construction project, there’s still a sequencing that needs to be followed.  First the legal counsel must have confidence in the mediator. Then the mediator must feel comfortable with the dispute. Ultimately the parties need to feel like they can trust the mediator; they must know that he or she is impartial.  They need to know that he or she is prepared and fully understands their position and arguments.  

All of this takes both time and care.  If a mediator is going to truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of a party’s position, then the mediator must be willing to spend the time and effort to become acquainted with the case, the counsel and the parties.  Sometimes a mediator can be tempted to skip most or all of the prep work and start asking for demands right at the outset of a mediation.  If the case is already in a position to settle without much mediator input, then such an approach may result in a successfully mediated resolution.  But if emotions are high, or liability or damages issues aren’t clear, then a mediator is going to need to follow the sequence of becoming familiar with the case and each of the parties.  Any effort to shortcut this process can sometimes result in more of a “demolition” than a “construction” process. And the best mediations proceed in a logical, ordered sequence towards resolution.  Skip one of the key steps and you may find yourself back at square one.  

The foregoing article is provided for general information purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter.  Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.  

Robert B. Jacobs is an attorney, mediator and arbitrator in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He mediates cases throughout California. Reach him at

Ego v. Superego

Mediation is not a dispassionate exercise.  That’s part of the genius of it.

Mediation has its genesis in dispute.  If there were no dispute, there would be no mediation.

By its very nature, dispute leads to emotion.  Disagreement can lead to frustration, which can lead to anger, all of which involve emotion.  It can be easy for parties to feel like the other side is missing the point, playing games or being unreasonable.  If the situation seems unfair or the other side is pushy then emotions can spiral upwards quickly. If the other side is stubborn, unyielding or “dug in” then the parties may find it nearly impossible to stay cool, calm, collected, and dispassionate.

Effective mediators know this and actively work to lower the temperature in the room.  

But what about the mediator’s emotions?  Mediators are people too. Unless a case is completely poised to settle before mediation even begins, the mediator will pay a key role in the success – or failure – of a mediation.  Mediators don’t have a stake in the outcome – but they do want to see the case settle (if possible). Effective mediators do become involved in the case – in the emotions, the perspectives, and the feelings of the parties.

What happens when a mediator gives it their all only to have a party be completely unyielding?  What does a mediator do when one of the sides just won’t give an inch?  

This can be a key juncture at mediation.  Mediation involves an emotional climax. Everybody comes to mediation knowing that their case may settle that day.  The prospect of settlement can be attractive since settlement means people get to move on with their lives. Results hang in the balance during mediation, so even if they don’t expect their case to settle, people still experience an emotional climax when they come to mediation. 

And in reality, the mediator is also involved in this. The mediator has spent time reviewing briefs, talking with counsel and preparing for the mediation.  A good mediator hopes and expects that the case will settle. So while talking details, position, strategy, risk, exposure and cost with the parties, the mediator always hopes for a settlement.

As a result, when things get tough it’s easy for a mediator to get frustrated.  If a mediator spends all day working with the parties and then one of them simply digs in, it’s easy for a mediator to feel stonewalled.  After all, the mediator has invested not only time, but a substantial amount of emotional energy in the process. When someone simply turns off, or refuses o budge at all, or suddenly gets unreasonable it can be easy for the mediator to throw up their hands and announce to the parties that the case isn’t going to settle. 

But what good does that do?  Sometimes the parties may need to cool off outside of the mediation before they will negotiate further.  But sometimes a mediation can be unnecessarily cut short if the mediator simply gives up because they are frustrated with one of the parties.  Sometimes a case really could settle if only the mediator hadn’t thrown in the towel too soon.  

If a mediator has an ego about their own value or their own importance in the case, then it can be easy for them to give up when the going gets tough.  There are already several people at mediation who are working hard to control emotions and the mediator can’t afford to be one of them. An effective mediator must be willing to divest themselves of all personal emotion with respect to the negotiations.  A mediator can’t effectively mediate if they take offense, feel rebuffed, or feel stonewalled by one of the parties. In short, an effective mediator must be the master of their own emotions. If not, then they lose their ability to think clearly and help the parties and their counsel make deliberate decisions based on primary values such as risk, exposure, and cost.   

When the mediation starts, a mediator needs to check their own ego at the door and focus instead on the needs, feelings, interests and values of the parties and their counsel – even when some of those parties or counsel may be acting unreasonably or may be spun up on emotion. 

The foregoing article is provided for general information purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter.  Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.

Robert B. Jacobs is a mediator and arbitrator in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He mediates cases throughout California. Reach him at

Hod Carrier or Architect?

When I was first married I had zero money and a new little family to support. So I did what
we all do. I looked around for a good paying job that could help me get through school.
I’d done construction before and knew it paid well. So I found a brick mason looking for a
hod carrier (or “hoddy”). I didn’t know much about carrying hod, but I thought it would pay the
bills. So I signed up.
My first day wasn’t glamorous. My job consisted of keeping the mason supplied in bricks
and mortar. I did whatever he needed so he could just keep laying bricks. I huffed, I puffed, and
I hustled. He paid me four cents a brick and by the end of the day I had made exactly $16.00.
He apologized to me and said the next day would be better. But by the end of the second day
I had only made another $16.00.
I quickly saw this was going nowhere, so after two and half days I ended my brief career as a
hod carrier.
I learned some important lessons from that job (and others like it). My employers didn’t hire
me for my brains. They weren’t looking for me to solve problems or come up with creative
ideas. They didn’t need a new way to do things. Instead, they were only looking for someone to
do the heavy lifting carrying things back and forth – and they took responsibility for all of the
forward planning, all of the evaluations and all of the strategy. They only wanted me for
unthinking muscle. What they really wanted was a machine that moved quickly, kept up, and
quietly did their bidding.
No surprise here, but carrying hod is a completely different world than serving as an
architect. An architect is like the conductor of a symphony. An architect relies on skill, training
and a sense of vision to carefully organize a thousand – maybe ten thousand – different variables
into a single cohesive, successful outcome. Hire a poor architect and you get a poor result. Hire
a great architect and you’ve taken a major step towards a successful project.
What’s the difference? A hod carrier needs no skill or training – only willingness and a
degree of tenacity. But a successful architect needs not only tenacity but a highly developed set
of skills, training, education and talent.
Some parties seem to want a mediator that primarily presents offers between parties and makes
demands on the other side. To be sure, a good mediator must be able to skillfully present offers.
But frequently there are considerations other than money that might make or break a mediation.
I used to believe that mediations are driven mostly by two main considerations: risk and cost.
But now I know that many – perhaps most – mediations are driven by three factors: risk, cost
and emotion (or principle). Some parties just don’t want to settle if they think the other side is
getting too much – even if they themselves are getting enough. Other parties want respect,
validation or acknowledgment before they are willing to settle.

These “soft” considerations are real, and they can absolutely determine whether or not a mediation fails or succeeds. Discover the parties’ values and views on these “soft” considerations and you may be able to effectively address unspoken considerations that might otherwise derail a mediation.
A perceptive mediator will fully explore all of these “soft” considerations as necessary, and then address them in a way that makes sense in the circumstances. As a practical matter, this sometimes requires a successful mediator to come up with a settlement package that may be different than the Parties expect. Parties and their counsel often disclose their true values or “soft” considerations to a mediator in ways they would never consider disclosing to the other side. This places the mediator in a unique position to be able to craft a tailored resolution that can match the parties’ values. A mediator serving merely as a “hod carrier” in exchanging demands and offers between the parties may never reach this point. But a mediator serving as an “architect” will frequently be able to come up with a solution that may not have been previously considered.

The foregoing article is provided for general information purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter. Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.

Robert B. Jacobs is an attorney, mediator and arbitrator in the San Francisco Bay Area. He mediates cases throughout California. Reach him at

Mediation in a Nutshell

Some people have been through mediation. Most haven’t. Here’s a “snapshot” of mediation for “first-timers”:
“I’m not writing a check for $25,000.00.”
“I’m NOT writing a check for $25,000.00.”
“I’m NOT writing a check for $25,000.00!”
“I’m writing a check for $25,000.00.”
For some people this description is a bit close to home. Why would someone write a check for $25,000.00 (or any other amount) when they absolutely don’t want to do it? Because after weighing all of the considerations, such a check is the most appealing option.
It’s like the party who says, “I’m not paying them anything. Why should I? It’s just wrong.
They don’t deserve it. I didn’t do anything wrong. But I also don’t want this to continue.”
Sound familiar? Not all mediations go like this. But some do.
A “melting point” is “the temperature at which a given solid will melt” or in other words, when a solid turns to liquid. Solid things are often hard and inflexible. But something liquid isn’t hard at all and is always flexible. A “melting point” is a concept from physics – but it certainly applies to mediations. Some parties have unrealistic expectations about their claims (or their defenses). They believe that any reasonable judge or jury will see things their way. Prior to mediation it’s easy to retain that litigation view – which is often accompanied by blaming the other side. But at mediation a skillful mediator will help these parties explore the realities, risks and costs of litigation. And after these realities are explored in some detail, the option of paying more (or accepting less) can look more appealing than going forward. After all, settlement means certainty. By settling, the parties know exactly what they’ll be paying – or what they’ll be getting. The litigation costs will stop. And of perhaps equal importance, the parties can stop thinking, fretting, and strategizing about their issue at all hours of the night and day. In litigation the claims, defences, arguments and reality of it all will become a party’s constant companion.
In settlement this all goes away and each of the parties can move on to other things – immediately.
Examining the realities of litigation is like “turning up the heat” in a laboratory experiment.
If the heat gets high enough, one or more of the parties may reach their “melting point” and decide it’s just not worth the fight, the risk, the cost one or both of the parties reach that point, settlement is imminent.
Good mediators recognize this, and instead of simply communicating demands and offers from one side to the other, they’ll help the parties examine the realities of litigation– which can effectively “raise the temperature” at mediation. If nobody reaches their “melting point” then everybody may go home. But if a “melting point” is reached, then instead of going home the parties sign a settlement agreement.

The foregoing article is provided for general information purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter. Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.

Robert B. Jacobs is a mediator and arbitrator in the San Francisco Bay Area. He mediates cases throughout California. Reach him at

When Does Mediation Begin?

Let’s face it: If you show up right on time at your scheduled mediation expecting your mediation to begin, you may have already missed an opportunity.

Most mediators ask for briefs at least a week in advance of a mediation. These mediation briefs provide the mediator with a key opportunity to “tee up” the case for resolution.  

How so?  When done well, mediation briefs contain a compressed version of the facts along with citations to determinative points of law.  Sometimes the resolution of a case will focus on a key point of law. But many times the most important settlement considerations rest with the facts.  

Not every brief is supported with a hundred pages of exhibits.  And many times a lengthy exhibit set is completely unnecessary. But many briefs describe crucial evidence that isn’t included in an exhibit set.

A mediator serves many functions. One of most important is impartial evaluator.  If one of the parties misapprehends the strength of their opponent’s case, the mediator needs to do some serious “reality checking.”  What better way to do this than by openly and fairly evaluating the documentary evidence or the deposition testimony that supports (or cuts against) a case?

If the parties don’t supply the mediator with key documents in advance of the mediation then a mediator may not have time at the mediation to review and digest these documents.  But if the parties provide evidence to the mediator in advance of the mediation, then the mediator can review, consider, and evaluate it and be prepared on the day of the mediation to pointedly discuss it with the each side.

This raises the following question: When does a mediation actually start?

Many mediations start when counsel and their clients show up at the mediator’s office.  But if the mediator is proactive, the mediation can actually start as soon as the mediation briefs are submitted.  A thoughtful, analytical mediator will carefully review the briefs shortly after receiving them, looking for key issues, legal points, facts or documents that bear further examination.  If the case appears to be centered on key facts or evidence, these mediators can then ask the parties in advance of the mediation to supply copies of this evidence to the mediator.  This evidence allows the mediator to quickly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the case.  When the parties show up on the day of the mediation, they won’t be starting from ground zero. Instead, the mediator will be primed and ready to go with a thoughtful evaluation of the case and the critical evidence.  Such a mediator will be fully prepared to discuss with counsel the reasonable likelihood of a judicial determination if the case doesn’t settle – and possibly highlight and underscore even greater incentives for settlement.  A mediator who prepares in this way significantly enhances the likelihood of settling a case at mediation.

Life is busy and law practices are often overwhelming.  But when counsel engage a mediator, they certainly want to provide their briefs at least a week in advance so that the mediator can fully appreciate the strengths of their case.  When counsel do provide briefs well in advance of the “mediation day,” then the mediation doesn’t really commence when these attorneys shake hands with the mediator. These mediations actually start a week beforehand when the briefs are submitted and the mediator first begins to see what the case is all about.


Robert B. Jacobs mediates real estate, business and construction law cases throughout California.  Reach him at

The Mediator’s Secret Tactic

Mediation is serious business.  Clients are apprehensive. Attorneys are on high alert.  Everybody knows the drill. At the end of the day, someone is going to pay more – or accept less – than they want.  If that doesn’t happen, the case doesn’t settle, both parties lose – and the attorneys score. It’s a tense experience.

Everybody is suspect.  Parties often claim the other side is acting in bad faith.  If the parties distrust each other, how far will they move? Will they even budge?  Nobody’s going to change their position when they feel they are being played by the other side.  Nobody’s going to allow themselves to be pushed around. Nobody can afford to let the other side get the upper hand.  And as for their overblown (or lowball) offer? It’s unreasonable. It’s outrageous. It’s an insult.

What’s a mediator to do?  If a party won’t even hear the other side’s offer, a mediation is doomed.  Nothing can be done until the parties are at least willing to listen to what the other side is offering.

Parties – and their attorneys – are human.  People want to feel valued, vindicated and validated. They want it known that the other side has wronged them. They want their thoughts and feelings acknowledged and respected.

When people are angry or upset, they don’t think.  They react. They engage. They fight. This kind of atmosphere is just exactly what you do not want at mediation.  Instead, you want parties and attorneys who think clearly; who will carefully evaluate the risks of pressing forward and who will appreciate the benefits of certainty.  You want people who are thoughtful, reasonable, and rational. You want people to look at things from a different angle. You want people who are willing to learn and consider.  In short, you want people at their best.

The mediator is at the proverbial “eye of the storm.”  The parties see the mediator as the person in charge. The attorneys look to the mediator for clues and sometimes for direction.  If a mediator is tense, everyone’s tense. If the mediator gets angry, then people get unsettled at best and angry at worst.

Enter the “light touch.”

If the mediator smiles, people are reassured and at ease.  If the mediator is friendly, then people feel safe. If the mediator is personable, then the attorneys and parties know they can trust him or her.  If the mediator listens – truly listens – to the parties, then they know that their concerns matter. In short, if the mediator is good, the mediation’s good.  Nobody sets the tone of a mediation more than the mediator.

A well placed quip; a bit of a smile; an expression of personal interest; a compliment.  All these help parties feel more comfortable in this inherently difficult environment.

And what about food?  A hungry person is a poor negotiator.  Get some good food in them and the world’s a better place.  Get something that leaves you feeling good after you’ve eaten it – and then the parties can focus on the matter at hand instead of how poorly they’re feeling.  The food budget is the last place a mediator wants to save a nickel. Get it done right – and the investment in food will pay big dividends in how people feel about the process – and in their own willingness to give a little.

These are soft considerations – but they’re key.  A mediation staffed with the right decision makers has all the necessary elements for settlement; the only thing that needs to happen is for the parties to make up their minds (or change them) to settle.  That very change of mind – and heart – can be helped or hindered by the tone set by the mediator and the other “soft considerations”.

Why not give yourself (and the other side) every opportunity for settlement?  Big guns have their place – but so do the soft touch, the reassuring approach and the personable mediator.    


Robert B. Jacobs mediates real estate, business and construction law cases throughout California.

Speaking For Others

As a young man I worked many jobs.  Many years ago I became a member of the Iron and Steel Workers Union and I worked on a blast furnace belonging to United States Steel.  I’ve worked as a roughneck in the Wyoming oilfields. I’ve been a rough carpenter on apartment buildings. I’ve driven a 10 wheel dump truck for an excavation company.  I’ve been a small engine mechanic. And I served as a music director for a small theater company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

But I never spoke for anyone else until I became a lawyer.

When my kids were young they asked me what I did at work.  I told them I “read a little bit, I write a little bit, and I talk on the phone.  That’s about it.”

Somehow that didn’t seem very satisfying to them.  But it was true.

What I didn’t tell them was that I regularly speak for other people.  In fact, I do it almost every day.

It’s an unusual thing.  All of us talk all day long – and we talk for ourselves.  We read, we write, we talk. We rarely have someone else talk for us – until it comes to legal matters.  When we work with lawyers, we often have people talk for us. A power of attorney let’s someone else speak for us, write for us, and even make decisions for us.  But few of us spend much time working with powers of attorney.

But legal representation – I speak for people everyday.  Sometimes it’s in court. Often it’s on the phone, or through a letter.  I am a warrior. I’m a strategist. A river guide. And a counselor.

If we all speak for ourselves everyday, then why hire a lawyer?  Why not just talk for ourselves?

Because we wouldn’t know what to say.  And we wouldn’t know how to say it. And we want the power that stands behind a lawyer, and the respect that lawyers get. (This is true notwithstanding all of the lawyer jokes.  My son reminds me that in all the world there are only three lawyer jokes and that all the rest are true stories).

Unless we’re a lawyer, or a student of political law and theory, most of us don’t even know our own rights.  We hire someone else (a lawyer) to tell us what they are – and then pursue them for us.

So there are good reasons for paying someone else to speak for us.

What a different world is mediation!  As mediator I deal with lawyers every day.  And when I move between parties, I speak for those lawyers.  What a remarkable thing! Each room has a client – the “real party in interest.”  And most of those clients have lawyers with them – people they pay to speak for them.  But instead of speaking to each others, these lawyers pay a neutral third party – a mediator – to speak for them.  When I speak to the other side, my comments are truly two steps removed from the client.

Why do such a thing?  Why add another layer of cost and complexity to a legal system that’s already far too complex?

Because it works.  Litigation is based on distrust.  Settlement is founded on trust. In order to be effective – and protective – a lawyer must embrace distrust, caution, suspicion.  Otherwise, without adopting these viewpoints a lawyer can easily get blindsided.

Enter the mediator, who is a person without a dog in the fight.  The mediator isn’t tied to either party. The mediator doesn’t really care who wins or who loses; who has a great case and who doesn’t.  The mediator is focused on one thing, really: consensus. Above all else a mediator strives to build consensus.

It’s not easily done.  A mediator must listen and be persuasive.  They must have an understanding heart – and above all they must be patient and respectful.  If a mediator can legitimately and honestly earn the trust of the parties (and their counsel) then a mediator is in a unique position to help the parties check their own realities, review their values and evaluate their priorities.  In short, the mediator can help parties see things in a new light – and this can lead to settlement more quickly than almost anything else.

Could attorneys do this themselves?  Of course. Cases are settled everyday without mediators.  But when emotions are high, or when there’s strong distrust, or when somebody just doesn’t have a good grip on the risks, realities and costs of litigation – then a skillful mediator can speak for the other side and sometimes achieve something that just may not happen otherwise.  

Mediating cases is unusual work.  And the dynamics are fascinating. But it’s effective.


Robert B. Jacobs is a mediator in the San Francisco East Bay.  He mediates real estate, business and construction law cases throughout California.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Every mediator has been there.

The mediation has begun.  The mediator is working hard on building a relationship of trust with the plaintiff .  And then the plaintiff takes the moral high ground and flat out refuses to make any opening demand – nothing at all – because they feel so abused by the defendant.  They simply refuse to proceed with the mediation.

What can you do?  Where can you go? How can you settle a case when the plaintiff won’t even make an opening demand?  

It’s a classic scenario that every mediator has found themself in at some point. What can you do?

There’s only one option: attack the plaintiff’s position.  The mediator must help the plaintiff realize that trial results are uncertain, and the plaintiff may get a poor result at trial (regardless of how great a case the plaintiff might think they have).

But a mediator has to do this gently.  If the plaintiff feels you’re an adversary, you’re finished. You must absolutely retain the plaintiff’s trust because without such a relationship the mediator can do nothing. The trick is being able to maintain this trust while attacking the plaintiff’s position.

Can this be done effectively?  Yes. How? By very gently using a proven, time-honored negotiating tactic: Good Cop/Bad Cop.

Two negotiators are typically used in the Good Cop/Bad Cop approach.  One negotiator (the “Bad Cop”) is harsh, aggressive, demanding, unpredicatable.  The other (the “Good Cop”) is agreeable, cooperative, helpful. Sometimes the Good Cop even defends the party from the Bad Cop.  The idea is that because of this contrast the person feels they can trust the Good Cop and are therefore more receptive to negotiating with them.

An effective mediator will use this Good Cop/Bad Cop technique to point out weaknesses in a party’s position.  The mediator will introduce the prospect of losing at trial by pointing out the kinds of arguments the other side might make which might be convincing to a judge, even if the other side hasn’t yet made them.  In this kind of an approach the Good Cop is the mediator. The Bad Cop can be either the opposing side, or a judge (or jury). (Sometimes this technique is referred to as “reality checking” where the mediator points out the realistic likelihood of winning or losing at trial).  But regardless of whether the “Bad Cop” is the judge, the jury or opposing counsel, the goal of this approach is the same: it helps the party see the weakness of their position without undermining that party’s trust in the mediator.

When used skillfully, this approach can be very effective in making progress at mediation.  It’s an essential tool in the mediator’s toolkit.


Robert B. Jacobs is a mediator and arbitrator with over 30 years of litigation experience in business, real estate, and construction cases. He serves on the mediation panels for the Santa Clara County Superior Court and the Bar Association of San Francisco.  He’s a mediator for the Alameda County Superior Court and a Settlement Mentor for the Contra Costa County Superior Court. He also serves on executive committees for the ADR section of the Alameda County and Contra Costa County Bar Associations. Reach him at  


The foregoing article is provided for general informational purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter.  Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.


Bias, Anyone?

Bias is a reality – we all know it.

Some time ago I attended an evening program for ADR professionals.  Our speaker was not a professional neutral, but she had made it a lifetime pursuit to study power, bias, and unequal bargaining strength.  She lectures all over the world on these topics for the purpose of servicing the needs of the disadvantaged. She holds a Ph.d, and as the evening progressed it was abundantly clear she had spent a lot of hours reading about, thinking about, and analyzing power and bias in human relationships.

She said a lot of things that resonated.  Her program was completely spellbinding. She spoke for only an hour, but of all the classroom instruction I’ve ever had this was clearly some of the most riveting.

What could she possibly say about bias that would be so riveting?  Bias is a reality – we all know it. But many of us – perhaps most of us – actively work to minimize (or eliminate if possible) our own personal bias.

My mother, bless her soul, had many stellar qualities.  But nobody would ever call her timid. She didn’t ride the tides – she made them.  Whenever she put her mind to something, watch out! It was going to happen, and nobody (and nothing) would ever get in her way.  (She told my wife, shortly after we were married, that my wife was the first person who had ever told her “No.” My mother was over 60 years old at the time).  None of my sisters are shy or retiring – I know first hand that women are (or can be) as strong or stronger than any man. I like to think I am completely devoid, in my own life, of gender bias.

The same goes for racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural bias –my life experiences have taught me enough for me to believe I am as unbiased as it’s possible to be.

But this program addressed a different kind of bias.  Our presenter observed that most mediators hold advanced degrees, and that they have more education than the average person.  Our presenter noted (correctly) that oftentimes parties come into mediation from disparate backgrounds. One party may be better funded, with the ability to hire a more experienced or more effective lawyer.  That party may also be more educated, more logical, and more analytical than less educated parties. As a result, a mediator may more readily identify with – and relate to – such a party. If this happens, the mediator may consciously (or subconsciously) defer to the position, requests or proposals of such a party, and thereby effectively afford this party greater “power” in the mediation.  In the words of the presenter “If you aren’t aware of this kind of bias, you may (as a mediator) unconsciously advance the aims and interests of the party with the greater power.” She noted that less educated people often think about things differently than their more educated, financially successful counterparts.

The net result is that a mediator may subtly – and unconsciously – slant a mediation toward the more powerful party.

This was a complete revelation.  It was instantly clear to me that she had identified a potential soft spot in the mediation process.  It may be easy to watch and listen to other people for indicators of their bias – but it’s not so easy to do with our own.  As mediators, we have to listen intently to words and subtle signals as to the values, desires, and preferences of parties and counsel.  If a mediator is biased or predisposed towards a logical, analytical, clear-thinking party, then is that mediator likely to unconsciously advance the interests of that party during the mediation?

On the other hand, should a mediator properly attempt to effect social justice by favoring the interests of a disadvantaged party?  Doing so would offend the concept of the mediator as a “neutral.” Life is unfair, and it is filled with inequality. Parties come into mediation with unequal bargaining power every day.  If a mediator is to be truly “neutral,” then he or she must take the parties as they find them. The mediator’s task definitely does not include any attempt at “social reform” or favoritism within the context of the mediation.

Does this mean that a party who enters a mediation with more power may come out of the mediation with a more powerful result?  Yes. But does that mean that a mediator should indulge a party in every attempt to control, derail or influence a mediation? Not at all.  An aggressive litigator recently told me that the concept of “true” mediation was foreign to them since they always participate in mediation with absolutely no intention of settling their case, but instead always use mediation solely as a vehicle to gather information so that they can “win big” at trial.  Mediators are charged with facilitating consensus between the parties. Every ethical tool, technique and approach can properly be used towards that end. But nothing obligates a mediator to facilitate a fishing expedition if one of the parties is not participating in good faith.

It’s an unending quest.  An effective mediator will collect information about the parties and identify their wants and needs.  And a good mediator will never consciously further any bias of the parties. But every mediator also needs to constantly work at identifying – and managing – their own biases so that they don’t interfere with the mediation process.   


Robert B. Jacobs is a mediator and arbitrator with over 30 years of litigation experience in business, real estate, and construction cases. He serves on the mediation panels for the Santa Clara County Superior Court and the Bar Association of San Francisco.  He’s a mediator for the Alameda County Superior Court and a Settlement Mentor for the Contra Costa County Superior Court. He also serves on executive committees for the ADR section of the Alameda County and Contra Costa County Bar Associations. Reach him at  


The foregoing article is provided for general informational purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter.  Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.


Adversarial Trust

We’ve all been through it.  You come out of law school and you’re loaded for bear.  All you’ve done for three years is read outrageous cases of every kind of wrong, loss, injury and damage.  Everybody’s suspect. Nobody can be trusted.

After the bar exam, people start mixing it up.  It’s no less of a fight than being in a boxing ring. Depos, document requests, motion practice – it’s all in there.  Get a few trials under your belt and you start feeling like a seasoned veteran.

After a few years something unexpected starts to happen.  The grappling that used to be so intense becomes less so. Client billing issues start rising to the surface.  Things get more streamlined.

What happened?  What’s made the difference?

Adversarial trust. Sounds like an incongruity, but it’s a reality.  It’s part of the way things get streamlined.

We live – and work – in an adversarial system.  We fight, we challenge, we dispute. It’s a big contest.  And yet after a while something changes. We realize it’s not worth the fight – nor the expense – to litigate every last point.  It’s too expensive. Sometimes the clients won’t stand for it. Once we recognize that, we suddenly realize that our perspective has changed.  We find that sometimes those people who opposed us — our adversaries – begin working with us in a cooperative fashion.

It’s something that we never expected straight out of law school.  But we start trusting (to a limited degree, and only in some situations) our adversaries.

How does this work?  It’s a bit of a dance.  If a client’s trial budget won’t withstand scorched-earth litigation, then we open up a bit of a dialogue with opposing counsel. Maybe we ask a few guarded questions about marginally important documents – or certain witnesses – or certain testimony.  Then we listen. And we listen. And listen. If the answers add up – if they makes sense – then maybe we don’t take that third party deposition. Maybe we don’t send out the third, fourth or fifth deposition subpena for business records. Maybe we decide to take our opponent’s word on it (and maybe we don’t).

It’s not a new concept.  Sometimes our adversaries lie to us – and sometimes they don’t.  Moscow and Washington have been adversaries for decades – and yet after the Cuban Missile Crisis they put together a direct hotline so they could talk to each other (and possibly avoid potential disastrous misunderstandings).  (The movie Failsafe with Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman relies on this kind of hotline).  

So how do you know when your adversary is telling the truth?  That’s the art of it. You don’t know. You make your best lawyerly guess – and then you either rely on their representations – or you don’t.

Why does this make a difference?  Because the ability to sort the truth from the deceptions can let you know where an adversary is,  what they might do, where they might go, or what they might pay. Some of your best settlement intelligence can come from the most unlikely source: your own adversary.  Those who recognize this early can save their clients big money, and those who don’t may find themselves missing significant opportunities.

This kind of sorting is a difficult task – but it’s often worth the effort.


Robert B. Jacobs is a mediator and arbitrator with over 30 years of litigation experience in business, real estate, and construction cases. He serves on the mediation panels for the Santa Clara County Superior Court and the Bar Association of San Francisco.  He’s a mediator for the Alameda County Superior Court and a Settlement Mentor for the Contra Costa County Superior Court. He also serves on executive committees for the ADR section of the Alameda County and Contra Costa County Bar Associations. Reach him at  


The foregoing article is provided for general informational purposes and should not be used in connection with any specific legal matter.  Persons with legal issues or matters should consult competent legal counsel.