General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 1
January/February 2000



Lawyers across the country are asking for help, and state bar organizations are responding. Lawyer dispute resolution programs are being developed to provide lawyers with a speedy, private, and cost-effective mechanism for resolving professional and economic disputes among lawyers. Lawyer dispute resolution programs protect the interests of clients and benefit the judicial system, the public, and the profession by avoiding unnecessary litigation.

Any lawyer who has ever been involved in a firm breakup could go on for hours listing the numerous issues and problems it involved. Both the economic and emotional aspects of a breakup can be very hard on every lawyer in the firm. Every state that doesn't already have a lawyer dispute resolution program should consider putting one together. The programs usually start with mediation as a mechanism for resolution; if that is unsuccessful, arbitration is offered.

Creation of the program often requires changes to the rules of professional conduct, so that the proceedings remain confidential and all communications among the program administrator, the parties, and the mediator or arbitrator qualify as privileged-not subject to discovery in any other form or for any other purpose. One typical program, established by the State Bar of Wisconsin, involves the following steps:

  • Either party submits a "Notice of Dispute and a Request for Mediation" to the lawyer dispute resolution program administrator at the bar.
  • The administrator provides a list of five experienced mediators who practice outside the parties' immediate geographic area (to avoid conflicts and maintain confidentiality). The parties can, however, ask for a local mediator if they wish.
  • The parties seek a mediator within 48 hours of receiving the list; otherwise, the administrator selects the mediator.
  • The mediator makes contact, gets the process moving, and attempts to negotiate resolution within 30 days. Either party or the mediator can terminate the mediation at any time.
  • If an agreement is reached, the mediator may assist the parties in putting it in writing, which will be binding upon both parties.
  • If the mediation doesn't result in agreement, the parties can move on to arbitration. The arbitrator is chosen by the same process described above but cannot be the same person who mediated the dispute (unless the parties decide otherwise).
  • The arbitrator schedules a hearing within 30 days of assignment, or the parties can instead waive the hearing and submit written contentions and evidence.
  • The arbitrator renders a written ruling, binding upon all parties, within five business days of the close of the hearing. Parties also can request an opinion, which will be issued in writing within 30 days of issuance of the ruling.

Lawyer dispute resolution programs can be used for the resolution of many issues, including law firm dissolution, termination or departure of one or more lawyers from a firm, or disputes between law firms. Many programs have a nominal one-time administrative cost for both mediation and arbitration. In addition, the mediator and/or arbitrator receives a per-hour fee, which is shared by the parties, as are any other expenses.

The bottom line is that these programs appear to work. By using the program, court battles can be avoided, clients' interests can be protected, issues can be quickly and efficiently resolved, and life in the practice of law can go on. For more information on this program, call the State Bar of Wisconsin at 800/362-8096 and ask for the LDR administrator.

Kris Wenzel is the administrator of the State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyer Dispute Resolution Program, Fee Arbitration Program, and Clients' Security Fund.

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