Settling disputes outside the court

Resolution Center among growing number of firms with mediation services

October 07, 2005|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

In a few hours in a cozy conference room on a pleasant afternoon, the worries of Jim Dore's clients were over.

They had settled on monetary damages after a car accident, through an arbitrator at the Resolution Center in Ellicott City, avoiding going to court and saving a few thousand dollars.

"It was a very relaxed atmosphere," said Dore, a Columbia lawyer. "And it was far more economical for them to go this route."

That is the kind of experience that Thomas K. Swisher was aiming for when he opened the Resolution Center in 1990, offering litigants an alternative to the costly, stress-laden courtroom experience that can accompany legal disputes.

Swisher believes his firm is the only one in the state that brings together retired judges, licensed counselors and attorney-mediators.

The Resolution Center, which handles cases including family law matters, business disputes and personal injury issues, is among a growing number of firms in the state offering mediation as an alternative way to settle disputes.

"In Maryland, it has been a tremendous growth industry," said Roger Wolf, the director of the Center for Dispute Resolution at the University of Maryland School of Law. "The courts are using more and more mediation, referring cases to mediation."

Swisher, 45, of Clarksville opened the mediation firm after working for years as a litigator in a private firm and in his own firm. He doesn't miss those days.

"It was stressful," he said. "You have to have sharp teeth."

His religion - he is a Methodist who describes himself as a "peacemaker rather than a litigator" - and his growing spiritual appreciation and connection to God led him to think of other ways to resolve conflicts, he said.

He found mediation, which he had experienced from the other side of the table when he and his former wife divorced.

"It's helped us to maintain a very cooperative relationship, helped us to minimize conflict," he said.

At Swisher's firm, five retired judges, two licensed counselors and Swisher - a lawyer and counselor - try to minimize any animosity between parties and help them reach peaceful, satisfactory resolutions. About 90 percent of the cases the office handles involve divorce or custody disputes.

The firm took a major step by incorporating counselors into its program about four years ago, after Swisher realized that the clients had a number of underlying issues, including communication problems, anxiety or depression. He earned a master's degree in pastoral counseling in 2001 from Loyola College.

The counselors offer clients services that lawyers might overlook, said Swisher, who is completing his doctoral studies at Loyola and is a pastoral counselor associated with Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City.

"Especially in divorce cases, the impact that conflict has on both the parties and the children of the parities ... it impacts communication, it impacts the level of conflict in the family system," he said. "Being alert to the way that people communicate and to some of the emotional issues that are driving that conflict can help to bring those out to the discussion."

One reason people seek mediation is that it is cheaper and quicker than going to court. Cases aren't caught in the typical courtroom backlog and can sometimes be heard within days, Wolf said.

A medical malpractice case can cost $100,000 to $150,000 to litigate, an employment discrimination case $75,000 to $100,000 and an automobile accident a few thousand dollars, Wolf said.

At mediation firms in Maryland, the cost is probably $150 to $500 an hour, and cases can be resolved within a few hours or days, he said.

Mediation is a "much more satisfactory" way to resolve conflicts, Wolf said, pointing out that the parties aren't bound by the rules of the courtroom regarding what can and can't be admitted as evidence.

"In mediation, whatever the parties are interested in talking about, that gets talked about," he said.

In Dore's case, the parties agreed to mediation because the liability was clear and the only issue to resolve was damages. His clients were worried about going to trial and having to pay for expert witnesses, and they were satisfied with the outcome.

"I would imagine, maybe this type of a proceeding is not for everyone and every place," Dore said. "But if both parties are motivated, it's an excellent alternative."

laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

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