Lawyer Limelight: Linda Singer
Photo provided by JAMS

In May, Linda Singer will become the first female chair of the board of directors for JAMS, the largest private provider of mediation and arbitration services in the world. Singer has more than 30 years of dispute resolution experience as a neutral, litigator and trainer, and is viewed as a pioneer in the field. She has served as a mediator in numerous federal and state courts throughout the country and has resolved thousands of disputes across a wide range of civil litigation areas.

Singer received her law degree from George Washington University Law School. She is currently based in Washington, D.C., and has also been a faculty member at Harvard’s Program of Instruction for Lawyers at the Program on Negotiation since 1987.

Lawdragon: You’re considered a pioneer in the area of alternative dispute resolution. When did you start in this area and tell us how things have changed from the early days to what it has become today?

Linda Singer: I started in the 1970s before ADR was considered a field, certainly not an industry. I was looking for a way to resolve disputes inside institutions – first in prisons, then schools, hospitals, and finally businesses and as public policy. I had an early federal grant to develop a way to provide legal services for prisoners. Because taking issues to court would take longer than some sentences, we wanted to try to work things out less formally and more efficiently.

When I started, few people outside of labor management negotiations knew what mediation was.  Lawyers couldn’t tell you the difference between mediation and arbitration. Now most lawyers have taken at least one client through either a mediation or arbitration; many through scores or even hundreds. In addition, more people are making a living as full-time ADR professionals.

LD: You’ve trained fellow mediators and lawyers throughout the world. What do you think are the most important skills or talents a mediator needs to have in order to be successful in this field?

LS: A mediator needs to be able to connect with people and listen to them. Parties to disputes need to trust us enough to tell us what’s truly important to them and what they need to resolve the dispute. We need to empathize while retaining the ability to analyze problems dispassionately. A mediator also needs to be able to deliver disappointing news without losing the parties’ trust and ability to push them to continue moving forward. Persistence is another important quality. A mediator must be able to keep trying and remain optimistic about resolution even when progress is no longer visible to the naked eye.

LD: As a mediator, do you get to choose cases you handle just like litigators get to choose clients they want to represent? How much control do you have on the kind of cases you get?

LS: Over the past 30 to 40 years, I’ve developed an expertise and reputation in employment, class action, public policy, multi-party, and general business disputes. So it’s not so much a question of turning cases away; it’s that your reputation tends to draw certain types of cases.

LD: In addition to training mediators, you’ve designed ADR processes for private companies, court systems, and government agencies. What are major factors that influence the success of a process?

LS: Organizations need to have buy-in and reinforcement from top management so employees, contractors, or consumers can use a program without fear of retaliation.  In addition, the organization should use expert neutrals from outside the company as mediators or arbitrators (preferably allowing some choice among neutrals by the users) or provide careful and thorough training for any insiders who will be involved. Finally, users will also need some orientation and understanding of the system so they will use it.

LD: What do you consider the biggest challenge the ADR field is facing right now?

LS: think there are two challenges. Users often believe that arbitration has gotten too lengthy, expensive and trial-like. At JAMS we try to manage arbitrations so users can get the type of process they want. We have a number of options to simplify and make the process more efficient. It’s available to anyone who uses us.

Additionally, we want users to employ a more diverse panel of neutrals. As much as providers like ourselves can recruit them, our clients need to broaden their horizons and select them. Just as clients have demanded female and minority lawyers to represent them, we need them to demand the same from the ADR providers.

LD: What course in law school do you think most prepares lawyers for the ADR process? Do you think this should be incorporated in the core curriculum now that many states and businesses have come to embrace the process? If so, how would you design such a course?

LS: I would make interactive, skills-based negotiation courses required for all law students. I think students should try to learn different negotiating styles, as well as negotiate different types of disputes.  I think it’s noteworthy that Harvard Business School has required such a course for first-year students for the past few years.  Law students who may be interested in becoming mediators or arbitrators, as well as future litigators, also should take skills courses in mediation and perhaps arbitration.

LD: Your husband, Michael Lewis, is also a mediator/arbitrator at JAMS and a prominent figure in the field like you.  And you both received the 2012 D’Alemberte-Raven Award from the American Bar Association’s Section of Dispute Resolution. How did you celebrate that achievement?

LS: We celebrated with our family, friends and colleagues. Lots of JAMS folks turned out, along with our youngest grandchild.  We both have worked to push ADR, particularly mediation, to be more accessible and generally available, and it’s wonderful to have been recognized for our efforts. It was the most affirming award we could have received; to have such recognition from our peers was a career highlight for the both of us.

LD: What do you do for fun?

LS: Michael and I have four grandchildren. We enjoy spending as much time with them as possible. We also like to travel and just returned from a fascinating trip to Cuba. Our best travel adventures have occurred on our tandem bicycle. We’ve gone on about a dozen vacations via tandem bike, including Italy, France, Portugal, Nova Scotia, California, and coastal Maine. We’re hoping to visit the Pacific Northwest soon as well.