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Thoughts on how to settle disputes and resolve complex situations.

Lawdragon Hall of Fame Recognizes Mediator and Arbitrator John DeGroote for His Innovative Approach to Dispute Resolution

Always one to examine better ways to approach what he does even in the best of times, mediator and arbitrator John DeGroote says the last year has been an inflection point, forcing ADR professionals to embrace new tools and tactics. Following the announcement that John had been inducted to legal publication Lawdragon’s Hall of Fame, we sat down with the founder of Dallas-based DeGroote Partners to ask him a few questions about the changes he sees in alternative dispute resolution.

How has the past year changed your approach to mediation?

I’ve always felt strongly that mediators – and arbitrators and lawyers, for that matter – are in the service business. With that in mind, I joke that our unofficial tagline is “Your Need Is Our Specialty,” and this year has made that mindset more clear than ever.  Lockdowns, online mediations, and more have only heightened the importance of being flexible as we work to get deals done. There are parts of the process that I have to control, but none of us should forget that clients are the reason we have that process.  We have adapted this year – and we’ll continue to adapt – because our clients’ needs have changed.

What does the format of a mediation look like today?

That’s a question with no single answer, because it’s clear that mediation is no longer confined to a conference room from 9:30 to 5:30 on “mediation day”. I recently finished a complex multiparty mediation with 96 people, including 5 mediators and folks across the country, over about 60 days.  We had one big Zoom session with just about everyone involved plus individualized, more targeted efforts for each of the parties – with separate Zoom meetings, follow-on emails, and texts throughout.  That may be a bit extreme, but it’s an example of how mediators can use technology and creativity to reimagine what mediation is.

Some parties still want to negotiate in person and – with caution – we have done that.  Early on during the shutdown, I installed high-quality HEPA air filters that we can use along with continuous air flow, appropriate distancing, and larger conference rooms to make everyone as safe and comfortable as possible. Sadly, our fajita buffet has given way to individual fajita servings, but the end result is the same.

With these measures in place, we’re increasingly asked to use a combination of traditional and online formats. It’s not uncommon to have some parties physically present and others appearing by Zoom, and we’re happy to mediate that way if it’s what clients need to get their deals done.

How has the pandemic affected your firm?

There’s no doubt business declined sharply immediately after the shutdown, but fortunately ours bounced back quickly and since then we’ve been busier than ever. The flexibility we now have to conduct mediations whenever and wherever has untethered us in ways I could not have imagined – plenty of my cases no longer have any connection to Dallas, or even Texas for that matter, and I don’t see that trend ending anytime soon. I have had to adapt our start time to accommodate folks across three continents for one mediation, and another where everyone got to play “name that area code” as dial-in participants were admitted.  Where you are is no longer as important as what we can help you do, and I like it that way.

Do you see remote proceedings permanently replacing in-person mediations and arbitration?

There are instances where remote mediations can be better and more productive. People are more relaxed when they’re in a comfortable environment, and the fact that they don’t have to travel – or even leave home at all – is a big plus. The convenience of appearing by Zoom often results in more-senior lawyers and decisionmakers taking part, and that (almost) always helps.  These advantages, paired with our ability to share screens with multiple participants at once, means that we can all focus on the exhibits, the documents, or the settlement agreement at the same time, and that shared focus can really help get deals done.

Videoconferencing has changed when we do what we do, as well — Zoom allows me to meet individually with parties and counsel before mediation day to better understand the dynamics of a dispute.  If I can do a 15- or 20-minute Zoom call with everyone in advance, I’m able to begin to establish a rapport that will change what our mediation will look like. When parties go to bed the night before the mediation having met the mediator already, tomorrow can be about getting things settled rather than getting everyone settled in.

Yes, we’ll return to the “standard” mediation format more and more often in the coming months, but the new tactics and tools we have learned and used since early last year are here to stay – and from my perspective, that’s a good thing for our clients.

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