Hall of Fame Lawyer Limelight: John DeGroote

John DeGroote is always looking for common ground. Clear-spoken and kind, with a capable air, it isn’t difficult to understand why trial counsel and business leaders across a variety of industries trust him to bring their most complex disputes to resolution.

After more than a decade serving as Chief Litigation Counsel and, ultimately, as General Counsel for a global technology consulting firm, DeGroote opened the doors to his own mediation and arbitration practice at Dallas-based DeGroote Partners. Since then, he’s successfully negotiated hundreds of cases across the country and beyond on behalf of businesses, individuals, governmental entities and more.

DeGroote’s clients come to him, and stick by his side, not only because of his legal acumen, but because he understands their businesses. He knows how to solve problems. But more importantly, he knows how to solve their problems.

Lawdragon: Will you please describe for our readers the mix of work you do in your practice?

John DeGroote: I really do three different things. I’m a mediator, I’m an arbitrator, and I serve as a “special situations” advisor in complex, often intractable matters. Most know what a mediator and an arbitrator do, and I often take on one of those roles – but I’m also happy to serve as a trustee, as an independent director, or as a neutral intermediary to get results despite disagreements among the stakeholders. A few of the roles I am able to discuss highlight how rewarding this practice can be – I have served as an escrow agent for significant assets in dispute while the fight continued, I have determined and distributed settlement proceeds to settling parties over a multi-year period once the dispute ended, and I have run the entities buying and selling well-known companies out of bankruptcy. So it’s really a mix of all of these things.

LD: Sounds like a fascinating legal practice. How did you first become interested or involved in mediation?

JD: They say that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and there’s no doubt I learned about mediation because I had to. One February while I was Chief Litigation Counsel to KPMG Consulting, our General Counsel told me I had to cut our annual litigation budget by 60 percent – with only 10 months left in the year. I had to get creative and reevaluate every aspect of how I managed our docket, and one of the ways I did that was to meet with one of our insurers in Zurich. He told me I’d always come out ahead if I could figure out early on what a case was really worth – and pay it then. I soon turned to mediation, which is a quick and effective way to learn about a case and what it’ll take to get it settled. My team and I hit that 60 percent metric, and soon thereafter I headed west for mediator training at Pepperdine. I learned then that I had plenty left to learn.

LD: Was there a case you mediated as a lawyer that pushed you toward mediation?

JD: The case that comes immediately to mind involved the issue of data ownership in e-commerce, which really began to take off in the mid-1990s. Of all the companies that “touch” an online purchase, who owns – and who can leverage – the knowledge that you just bought a pair of socks online? Again, that was more than 25 years ago, but I still remember how mediators Eric Green and Ross Stoddard got that case done. I saw then how excellent mediators address a complex case with unknown facts and uncertain law, and the approach I saw then guides how I do what I do to this day.

LD: Is there one practice area you focus on more than others?

JD: My practice tends to be defined more by the size and complexity of the cases, as well as the diversity of people I get to work with, rather than any specific area. Most are complex, often multiparty cases involving folks from all over, and I like it that way. Whether it’s a technology dispute in Chicago or a manufacturing case in Alabama or a health care dispute right here in Texas, I feel fortunate to have a practice that seems tailored to my background.

LD: Are there any trends you see in the industry that can dictate the sort of cases you take on, or do you feel like your practice consists of a pretty good mix?

JD: Mediation has changed, and mediators have to change with it. I used to think of mediation as an event that started over coffee at 9:30 and ended with a settlement or an impasse before you went home, but my practice has never really fit that mold. We like to adapt the process to the situation at hand – I have flown to visit the site of the dispute, I have interviewed a witness live in a joint session with the parties present, and I have written a letter to a Board of Directors about why a certain outcome made sense. I was once told by a lawyer I hired: “Your need is my specialty,” and I have adopted that as our unofficial mediation tagline.

LD: What do you find satisfying about this kind of work?

JD: I used to teach college freshmen, and I still cherish that “aha” moment when a student’s eyes light up as a difficult concept becomes clear. Mediators get the same experience, too, when they see that a party realizes the case is going to settle. It’s before the client says “yes” and often well before the negotiations end, but the decision maker’s shoulders relax a bit and the tension in their face releases ever so slightly. Their partners and their lawyers may not know it yet, but I do. They’ll be going home tonight with this case behind them.

LD: Is there a particular case you’ve worked on as a mediator that really stands out to you?

JD: I love cases that require creative solutions, and a significant estate matter I handled in West Texas required more of those than most. In that case the parties’ give and take at mediation all came down to one coveted piece of land, and the negotiations began to stall. I proposed an auction among the beneficiaries with proceeds from the settlement serving as the currency, and it appeared we’d have the case resolved in no time. A disagreement over who would have to bid first, and how the rest of the bidding order would be selected, quickly threatened the potential for a deal – until I thought to look for an app on my smartphone that would randomize data. After a quick download, my phone generated the bidding order for our auction, the property “sold,” and the parties had their dispute behind them.

LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

JD: In college, I studied under a communication professor named Sid Hill. Sid didn’t teach me about law, but he did teach me a lot about negotiation. A couple of other undergrad students and I once accompanied him to a conference in Denver, and for whatever reason we all took the train. I’ll never forget that Sid brought a case of wine with him. It wasn’t particularly expensive wine, but he used it to tip the various team members working on the train. These bottles may have only been about $10 each, but he knew what the staff on the train wanted even more than money – and the point I took away is that most everything out there is negotiable if you know what people really want. The challenge is to figure out what that is.

LD: Did you have any other jobs before you opened your own practice?

JD: Before college I was fortunate enough to be selected as a United States Senate Floor Page. As a senior in high school, my job was to sit on the Senate floor and monitor the Senate’s activities and to assist them with whatever it was that they needed. I was there for a speech then-Majority Leader Howard Baker gave not 10 feet from where I sat. There had been a very spicy debate, and a number of senators in the room were starting to jockey for presidential runs. As those debates continued to escalate, Senator Baker took the microphone. He acknowledged the divergent viewpoints, but said we had a problem that needed to be solved – and now that we’d heard all the rhetoric and the positioning, we needed to talk about how we were going to get past it. The senators got a deal done soon thereafter, and that taught me a few things. First, everyone needs to be heard, and everyone needs to be able to listen to what the other side has to say without taking offense. Then we all have to focus on how we’re going to get through this. It’s the shift from “how we got here” to “where we’re going,” and it’s what I get to do every day.

LD: Is there anyone you’d consider a mentor who taught you those lessons?

JD: Absolutely. His name was Thad Cochran, and he was a senator from my home state of Mississippi. He was absolutely fantastic at working with others on both sides of the aisle, and from all walks of life, to find ways to get deals done. He was very rarely in the national spotlight, but I think if you look back at all the things he worked on, you’d see that most of it was passed. Sometimes he had to compromise a bit, but he got the job done – often while letting others take credit. I now know that you can accomplish most anything you want in life as long as you’re willing to let someone else take the credit, and I have him to thank for that.

LD: How would you describe your style as an attorney? How do others perceive you?

JD: I once worked for a lawyer named Wade Cooper who told me that others may be smarter than he is and some may be luckier than he is, but he could control how hard he worked – and no one would ever outwork him. In truth Wade is both smart and lucky, but what he taught me has served me well as a mediator and as an arbitrator. When I ask a party about that exhibit at the bottom of the stack, or when I explore how a case she cited in her mediation memo might apply to a lawyer’s case, they know I have read “their stuff,” and we can do a lot with the momentum and confidence that comes from that discovery.

LD: How do you prepare? Is every case different, or do you have a strict routine you like to follow?

JD: Every case is different, but they all require real preparation and focus. We have a workflow process here where my team and I ask for documents early and schedule pre-mediation calls with counsel and often clients a week or so before mediation day. We work hard to assemble our interview notes and organize, review, and digest the case documents well before the mediation starts, since you can’t ask the right questions if you don’t understand the case.

LD: The cases that you handle, do they last weeks, months, or years?

JD: Yes, yes and yes. But backing up – I rarely get calls from people who want me to work on something that needs to be resolved tomorrow. Typically, the cases I work on are on my calendar weeks in advance. I’m usually planning everything about six weeks out, and sometimes I work with the parties over a number of months to narrow the issues, focus the discovery on what everyone really needs to understand before a decision can be made, and then bring it to conclusion.

LD: Is it a challenge to focus on management issues while working “in the weeds” on mediation and other matters?

JD: No, it’s not a challenge at all. I grew up as the head of litigation for a consulting firm, and some of the lessons I learned there about how businesses do what they do drive what we do today. A number of years ago as I closed out a multi-year, global project I took a hard look at my practice – I looked at everything we were doing, and I broke it all down to see exactly how things got done. For each task I asked myself: “Is this something I want to maintain, or is this something I don’t need to do anymore?” We decided to stop doing much of what we used to do, and for those tasks we wanted to keep, we built out and documented detailed workflows on who would handle what and when they’d do it. When you have a number of complex cases scheduled for arbitration and mediation over the next six weeks, not to mention other matters, you need to get it right. As long as you have trustworthy systems in place, you’re never going to be worried about whether you’re doing what you need to be doing – you can focus on doing the task in front of you a little better instead.

LD: How do you pitch yourself to potential clients? What are they getting from you that they aren’t getting from someone else?

JD: The answer to this one is easy. Before I became a mediator, Chris Nolland told me: “Treat each mediation as if it’s your first.” If you can do that, he said, the next steps in the process will take care of themselves. Years later, it’s clear that Chris was right.

LD: How do you sell yourself to someone you’re looking to partner with?

JD: The world is divided into givers and takers, and, as a “giver,” I’m careful not to partner with takers. I believe that when we share ideas and strategies, it’s better for us individually and collectively, and our clients benefit from it. It always makes me laugh when folks describe other mediators as my “competitors,” since that’s not the way it works. On a Saturday you’ll often find me on a call or a series of emails with three of my supposed competitors sharing the latest on how we can do things better for everyone.

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?

JD: I have served as the Scoutmaster for Troop 70, one of the oldest Scout troops in North Texas, for a number of years. Troop 70 is one of the largest troops around, with 90 or so scouts from 18 or so different schools all over Dallas, and I never get tired of seeing our scouts become better citizens and leaders. I’m an Eagle Scout, and have always known I’d give back just like those who did so for me back in Pascagoula.

LD: What do you like to do in your free time?

JD: Running my own business, I have a little more control over my schedule than I might otherwise. I was once told that, with your own business, you get to work any 80 hours a week you want, and that’s true to some extent. Outside of that, I have three boys, a wife I’ve been married to since before the turn of the century, and a couple of rescue labs that keep us all on our toes. They’re why I do what I do, and I’m lucky to have them.