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Remote Mediation with Non-English Speakers

You’re ready for your remote video mediation. Everyone has the latest version of the technology and knows how to join. You rehearsed with your client; maybe you did a practice session with the mediator. You submitted the mediation confidentiality form and contact form. Now you can concentrate on the facts and the law.

Wait–What about the Interpreter?
At the beginning of every remote mediation, I confirm that everyone present has signed off on the confidentiality agreement. Yet, sometimes, against all the rules, someone else is there. Often, it’s a family member who is “just there to interpret.”

It’s inconvenient, but perhaps not a major issue. Just as would happen with an in-person mediation, someone who does have a role in the mediation can execute the confidentiality acknowledgement at the last minute. But some family members refuse documented participation in any court proceeding. Sometimes the party lacks the technology to return a signed document immediately.

Usually, the attorney can interpret for the client. Of course, the attorney is bound by confidentiality rules, but this arrangement often omits a few steps.

Get the Client What the Client Needs
An English language confidentiality agreement executed by a party who clearly needs an interpreter raises questions. Did the client sign a document without understanding it? If the attorney or a family member interpreted, that should be documented within the agreement. The person who interpreted should be a signatory, e.g.,

I translated this document and read it to Plaintiff in Spanish:___________________________________

The Settlement Agreement
Attorneys on both sides of the conflict should be concerned about the validity of an English-language settlement agreement when one or more signatories are not fluent in English. Nobody wants to be in in court after the fact because someone is contesting the agreement. The document should be read to the non-English speaker, and the interpreter needs to disclose and sign off on the settlement document. Ideally, lawyers will also provide a written translation of the document. Google Translate can create it quickly, but not necessarily with 100% accuracy.

The ultimate protection is to bring in a certified court interpreter by video or telephone and at the time of signing the settlement document.

Translating to Everyday English

You may think all the mediation participants are speaking English, but you have failed to realize that at least some of you are speaking a foreign language. The most common foreign language used in mediation is Lawyer, and Adjuster is also common. In some mediations, everyone except the claimant is speaking Insurance, but no one has thought to provide a translation.

While the professionals in the room are speaking one of these languages, the clients are often mystified, simply trusting that their counsel is looking out for them. Sometimes, though, a client’s inability to understand becomes apparent near the end of the day.

I have heard of mediations where, when it was all over, the client asked, “What just happened?” In one of my mediations, as the attorneys were finalizing the details of the settlement, the claimant asked me how a particular issue was being resolved—an issue that hadn’t been addressed at all. I had to make sure the attorneys addressed this concern with the claimant and each other.

Professionals who use jargon regularly can easily forget that people outside their closed community don’t understand what the professionals are talking about. Just as you would provide an interpreter to translate an international language, make sure everyone understands what is being said in the languages of Lawyer, Adjuster or Insurance.

The Smartest Thing to Do in Mediation

W-A-I-T: these four letters remind you to ask yourself Why Am I Talking? Silence is often your most effective negotiation technique.
 

Silence has two big benefits
The first benefit of silence is to be better able to respond. Too many people come to mediation with their attitudes so entrenched that they don’t listen. You cannot successfully respond if you have not listened—really listened—to the opposing party.

Do not multi-task. During a remote mediation on your laptop, no one may be able to see you scrolling on your phone. But you are cheating yourself of the opportunity to collect information to help you conclude the case. You can miss something important if you’re not paying attention.

Lose the condescension. If you come to mediation with the attitude that your side is righteous and the other side’s views are valueless so you don’t have to pay attention to them, the initial obstacle to reaching settlement is yourself.

The second benefit is that if you just stay quiet, the other party may rattle off information to fill the silence void that damages their own case.

Listen First

Lawyers in particular are prone to thinking about what to say next instead of taking heed of what’s happening in the moment. It’s why they can miss asking the follow-up question a deponent’s answer should have prompted. And it’s why they ignore signals that would help them settle their case.

As your mediator, my job is to recognize those missed signals and follow up with the participants to facilitate settlement.

Quarantine Settlements

You have an opportunity. Right now. While you are working from home. While you are most likely to be able to reach people by telephone and actually engage in a discussion about pending claims.
 

Look over your file inventory. Which are the claims with high monthly expenses?  What about the old dog claims that have been around forever? Would you like to close that in pro per claim?

Reach out to parties about settling pending claims. Offer to participate in a remote mediation. Video mediation lets parties negotiate jointly and also in separate caucus rooms without physically leaving their homes.

In mediation, people need not retreat from their stated negotiation positions, yet confidentially discuss a route to resolution with the mediator.

Claims are down, right? High unemployment means there are fewer people working and fewer people getting hurt. There are fewer cars on the road. Essential workers must still commute, but the rest of the population is mostly sheltering in place. But then there are those COVID-19 claims. Sickened workers are entitled to coverage. Small businesses are making claims on their business interruption policies. Open roads have encouraged reckless driving, which worsens the outcomes of the inevitable collisions.

Eventually, there is going to be an uptick in claims. The time to reduce the pending claims inventory is now.

Why Video Mediations Are Like Early Personal Computers

You may have heard the abbreviation RTFM. As soon as everyday consumers started using computers, telephone customer support staff had to field daily questions about the most basic functions. Perhaps the most infamous is about the user who insisted that a floppy disk drive (remember those?) was a cup-holder. What the tech people wanted to yell was, “READ THE F-ING MANUAL!” 

Read the Mediation Instructions
I send instructions to participants in every one of my mediations. Over time, these instructions have gotten so specific that they even include directions on what topics to include in the mediation brief.

For better or worse, I am no longer disheartened when it is painfully obvious parties have paid no attention to the instructions. We simply carry on.

Instructions for Video Mediations
Shelter-in-Place orders have drastically increased the use of video platforms for remote mediation. It’s really important to prepare for video mediation by READING THE INSTRUCTIONS. These include information about:

  • How to sign in
  • Acceptable remote locations
  • WiFi requirements
  • Device requirements
  • What happens if a computer goes down

Unlike with in-person mediations, failure to read video mediation instructions can prevent the mediation from going forward.

Courts may be closed, but the disputes go on. You can get those disputes resolved during a shutdown with video mediation.