When Covid-19 struck, somebody hit the global pause button. Panic set in. Then panic turned into patience. People started singing from balconies, talking to their neighbours and working out ways to do things better in the future. Those of us with a positive outlook on life are using the crisis to work out ways to upgrade our lives and the way we do business.
I believe there are many reasons why this emergency experiment may result in virtual mediation becoming part of our new normal, even after social distancing is over.
Like most other mediators, I offer virtual mediation. Many virtual mediations have already taken place since the pandemic lockdown started and I have only heard success stories. However, I realise that persuading your clients to engage in virtual mediation, rather than postpone, is not necessarily that easy. I have written this blog to help lawyers with those conversations.
So here are my top five:
Say goodbye to staggering client arrivals and exits
For many clients a mediation with family members they have fallen out with is a very daunting feeling. The thought of bumping into certain family members entering the venue, or during the mediation, gives them sleepless nights. I have in the past had to accompany a female client to the ladies so she felt safe during the mediation. Those anxieties would fall away with a virtual mediation. So too would the necessity to sometimes stagger exits, even after a successful mediation, for fear of an angry confrontation. I have witnessed that too and it certainly left a very nasty taste in everybody’s mouths despite a successful settlement.
The revival of the joint opening session
In my experience, joint opening sessions are becoming less and less popular in contentious probate cases. Family members just don’t feel that they can face sitting in the same room as the “other side” for fear that they will get upset or say something they will regret. Having recently dealt with some very personal issues in a virtual setting, I can honestly say that it is less intense. There is something strangely calming and empowering about sitting in front of a computer screen expressing how you feel. On the contrary, sitting across the table from your opponent at the start of the day can be a daunting prospect for some. Understandably, many individuals either decline to engage in a joint session or rely on their lawyer to be their mouthpiece because it feels safer. Many people may well feel more comfortable voicing their personal needs and interests over video call. If done well, hearing a personal perspective on the conflict “from the horse’s mouth” will have a powerful and deep impact on an opponent. If doing it live is still too much, there is even technology out there that allows a client to record a video message during the mediation and post it in the virtual room. Imagine the power of hearing how a client really feels about an offer that has been made.
No “home advantage”
Arranging the logistics of a mediation can be very contentious. Some clients would rather pay to hire a neutral venue rather than walk onto the other side’s pitch. Lawyers sometimes incur considerable costs debating with the other side where a mediation is going to take place. It’s tempting to belittle the importance of such points, but they are significant to clients.
With a virtual mediation, there is no “home and away”. Instead there is total equality. There is no more messing about with obtaining dietary requirements. A virtual mediation also removes the very real problem of blood sugar levels dropping to unhealthy levels which results in rational thought being impaired. It also removes the need for some to have travel further than others and for some people having to leave by a certain time for a long journey.
A virtual mediation also allows clients to deal with their conflict in the comfort of their own space, using whatever helps them to relax. That could mean anything from lighting a scented candle to having the dog under the table or a cat to stroke. Never underestimate the power of such things for some, especially where anxiety is present.
Save time and money
A considerable cost saving can be made for a client. With no travel costs and hotel bills to pay, clients can save significant amounts of money. Mediations can sometimes be very expensive and these “hidden costs” can mount up. I firmly believe that mediation should not be prohibitively expensive for individuals. A virtual mediation is even more cost effective and that can only be beneficial for clients.
We lawyers sometimes forget how difficult it is for clients to find the time to mediate. A big mediation can easily take up 3 days of a working week if significant travel distances are involved and the mediation goes on late into the night. For clients, who are interrupting their own working week to fit in a mediation, a virtual mediation will make it easier. This quite simply enables not only clients, but also lawyers, to get more done in a week, not to mention the beneficial impact on work life balance.
Conflict is bad for your mental health
Last but not least, people are dealing with enough stress at the moment with the Covid-19 outbreak without putting off the resolution of their family dispute to an uncertain date. Delaying a mediation until things have died down could mean months of stress and uncertainty, which could be avoided. Nobody knows when this crisis will be over, and I can’t think of many clients who would honestly say that they wish to prolong the pain of the conflict. Right now, people need to find ways to limit their stress and buy certainty. Many people also need access to cash. A swiftly organised virtual mediation ticks all those boxes. What we can learn from the current situation is the benefits of being able to organise mediations more quickly and cost effectively.
So those are my top five reasons why virtual probate mediations are positive and could be here to stay. Most of them will still apply even after the current crisis is over. I am a big believer in “getting good out of bad”. Let’s embrace the technology we have available to us and use it to our advantage. If the Supreme Court can go virtual, so can mediation.
I hope these tips help you with the conversations you must be having with clients now. If you would like to talk through any aspect of virtual mediation with me, please do not hesitate to get in touch.