7 Habits of Highly Effective Litigators


Borrowing rom Stephen Covey, consider the following “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Litigators” that can have a positive impact on the cost and outcomes of cases and will improve a litigator’s caseload management. After all, the litigator’s job, as a zealous advocate, is to get the best result for her/his client at the lowest cost. These are some “habits” that you might not have fully considered or practiced to get there.

1. Mediate early in the case. The practice of engaging a mediator at the outset of a dispute remains vastly underutilized, despite the substantial upside and essentially no risk. We know that at least 95 percent of civil cases will settle, often late in the game or on the eve of trial. That’s the time when productive solutions no longer may be available, when your primary objective is to get out of the case without risking a trial. By mediating early, you can:

  • Explore and identify means to a favorable settlement before the dispute escalates, positions harden and the case takes on a life of its own. Dispute escalation and entrenchment of positions are the greatest, and most avoidable, causes of excessive cost and barriers to constructive settlement.
  • Even without a settlement, productively narrow and focus the dispute on that which is really at stake, such that discovery is more targeted and the parties can revisit the identified settlement options once that stage of discovery is complete.

Litigators are almost universally skeptical of early mediation and see risks of “blind” settlements and truncated discovery. While not all cases are suitable, so many are–far more than are currently afforded the opportunity. The perceived risks can be artfully managed and, with the right process, are outweighed by the benefits of much lower cost and better outcomes. Investment in early mediation can be recovered many times over.

When I suggest this idea, I hear various types of pushback: Proposing mediation early risks appearing “weak” and too eager to settle. Or, the client is interested in taking a hard line and making a strong statement before getting to the table. Or, discovery is required to make sure that all facts are in view. Those concerns miss the point of early mediation, done well, with a mediator who can assist in breaking the ice and getting at what the parties are most interested in accomplishing, positioning the case for positive resolution or on a track toward the most efficient and effective process.

If you consciously practice only one of these seven “habits”, practice this one. Then, the others will fall into place more readily.

2. Set your strategy with the understanding that conflict often is about differences in perception. Humans see the same things differently. One core principle of conflict theory, which can be translated directly into practice, is that resolution of a dispute can be about reconciling those different perceptions. Negotiation and mediation fundamentally are not about “giving in” or making concessions. Rather, an initial focus on how and why the parties see the same facts and law as differently as they do can reveal paths to resolution that otherwise would go undiscovered. A negotiator who operates within this framework can control the conversation.

For a graphic demonstration of this idea, see the “spinning dancer illusion” at http://math-fail.com/2011/04/the-spinning-dancer-illusion.html. One person will see the image of the dancer spinning clockwise, and others will see the same dancer spinning counterclockwise. Only a few will perceive both directions. It comes down to how our brains process differently the same information.

3. Focus the mediator on the optimal resolution for your client. Mediation need not be a “one off” event to convince the mediator of the strength of your legal claim. The best mediations are a process that centers on what is needed to reach the best outcome. Use your mediation brief and confidential preliminary phone conversation with the mediator to assist the mediator in structuring the process in a manner that keeps your client’s optimal resolution front and center—such that the mediation addresses throughout how to overcome the barriers to reaching that outcome.

4. Never lose sight of what is really at stake for each party. Such awareness is a way to open the negotiation to more creative approaches than maintaining the focus on the strength of respective legal and factual positions. It’s not that the law and facts don’t matter; clearly they do. What can get lost, however, in the assertion of positions, is what the client, and the other party or parties, really want, and need, to accomplish from the dispute.

5. Use creativity and brainstorming as resolution tools. This subject deserves an article unto itself. From my perspective as a mediator, I find that lawyers often come to the process with single-minded views of how to settle the case. The most effective advocates, instead, approach the process openly and are prepared to generate and listen to creative solutions as the negotiation unfolds (which can work even when the case is “just about money”). This is a powerful advocacy skill.

6. Outthink the opposition by putting yourself in their shoes. This works every time, and can be very disarming. Even use empathy as a negotiation strategy (a subject for another day). Roger Fisher, co-author of Getting to Yes, spent his career encouraging lawyers temporarily to shed their own perspectives and biases and outthink the counter party by imagining you are the other party. This is very hard work. Yet, insights and ideas will surface to serve your client and find mutual gain that simply would not occur to you otherwise.

7. Never give up. Consider impasse not as a problem but as an opportunity for the most effective lawyering and as an opening to distinguish your work. If settlement is in your client’s interests, do what is necessary (and use the mediator in that setting) to keep the adversary engaged on your terms. It can be done. Delve even more deeply into (a) what specifically are the current barriers to settlement and (b) what needs to be done to move beyond those barriers.

These are quick summaries of seven ideas, which, if converted into habits, really can improve a litigator’s advocacy and get the best result. As a mediator, I have come to understand that there are underappreciated ways to get to that goal—to Think Different—that will pay off handsomely for you and your client.