ADR: Solving problems out of court Featured

6:52am EDT June 30, 2006
At times, business people become engaged in disputes that require legal remedies. In the past, that meant suffering through lengthy periods of time waiting for cases to be put on the docket and for trials to end. That is becoming less likely in today’s fast-paced, information-based business world in which innovative methods such as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) exist to speed up the resolution process.

The dynamics of the business dispute and settlement environment are dramatically changing the way attorneys and clients interact. Today, business people are more apt to seek business settlements for their legal problems and get involved in the resolution process.

Smart Business spoke with Christopher Pappas of Godwin Pappas Landley Ronquillo LLC to find out how business people can benefit from partnerships with attorneys in their efforts to reach out-of-court settlements for their legal disputes.

What is changing in the litigation landscape from a business dispute perspective?
Clients are becoming more sophisticated about dispute remedies available to them. They recognize that the idea of preparing the case for ultimate resolution by way of trial is no longer a practical concept in many situations. There are, however, numerous cases where the only way to resolve a given dispute is to utilize the courthouse process.

Is it just clients who are looking for early, cost-effective solutions to their business problems?
Not in my view. Attorneys who are interested in representing their clients well are pro-active in examining cost-effective solutions to their clients’ problems. I believe there is an awareness that a large number of legal problems can be resolved without the necessity of a trial, just by utilizing alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that are designed to help foster settlements.

In addition, attorneys should also focus upon all the various options that may be available to help solve the client’s problem, which should include both early and cost-effective solutions. In some cases, these solutions include a combination of legal and business-driven concepts or principles.

Is there any evidence to support the idea that courts are less involved in business dispute resolution than they were in the past?
Statistics indicate that, on the average, less than 5 percent of the cases that get into the court system ultimately are disposed of or resolved by way of trial. The traditional concept of preparing each case for resolution or disposition through trial has certainly changed. It should be noted, however, that courts are much more pro-active in fostering resolution of legal disputes by encouraging the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.

What roles have business people played in this trend?
In my view, the business community is more interested these days in looking at all the possible options that may be available to resolve a given problem. At the same time, business clients are more interested in being involved in the legal process and in the decision-making in terms of defining litigation strategy. This has led to a greater need for legal partnering between the attorney and client in working toward a commonly defined solution to the problem. Attorneys who recognize this trend begin to see their role much like a quarterback who has been given a playbook and whose job it is to implement the agreed-upon plan that is the by-product of the partnering process.

Does the trend toward the attorney-client ‘team’ speed up the resolution process?
Yes, basically because a true partnering process fosters a proper level of communication between the attorney and client which can lead to a carefully defined game plan from the inception. That doesn’t necessarily eliminate the need to initiate legal action in order to get the issue on the table, but it can result in the development of a ‘surgical plan’ in selecting the best option available to achieve a solution.

What is the client’s role in this process?
The client’s role is critical in terms of the partnering process. The client must be prepared to become more informed, involved and invested in the dispute resolution process.

How do clients become more invested and involved?
Clients must become more educated about dispute resolution techniques and the options available to solve their problems. This requires a greater understanding on their part as to how the legal process works and a greater insistence on being involved in the process of dispute resolution. Clients should be selective in retaining legal counsel who understand the value of partnering and recognize that there are a myriad of approaches that may be considered in approaching any given problem.

CHRISTOPHER PAPPAS is a partner and chair of General Insurance Practice Group for Godwin Pappas Langley Ronquillo LLP in the Houston office. Reach him at mailto:cpappas@godwinpappas.com or (713) 425-7401.