Harvard Law School’s goal in its revised curriculum this year is to teach young lawyers how to “resolve client dilemmas.” How exactly is that done successfully in the modern practice of law? By calculating dollars won in the final judgment, for example? By assessing the investment of time and energy versus the payoff? 

Everyone has by now heard of the prevailing sentiment that no one wins in litigation any more. If that statement is even somewhat true, what is the course to resolving a client’s dilemma in a way that will be viewed as successful? 

The mediation industry has arisen almost entirely as a reaction to the mistrust of lawyers and what is perceived as their conflict-escalating processes. Even arbitration is becoming viewed as saddled with some of the time-consuming, rigid aspects of litigation, and in-house counsel are moving towards mediation, or at least including mediation in their bag of tools. Paul Adams, Associate General Counsel at the Gap, finds mediation “a very, very powerful process with a strong emotional component. It’s informal and the plaintiff feels like he’s controlling what’s happening.” He also notes that it allows for more creative resolutions.

Thane Rosenbaum argues in his book The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right (HarperCollins) that what clients want most is an emotional relief–to feel that their position has been understood and acknowledged. "Clients of all stripes walk out of the courtroom saying ‘That’s it? I didn’t even get to say what I think?’" Lawyers, he argues, are limited by their legal vision—rather than just channeling their clients’ anger through a legal claim, such as breach of contract, which may not really address the client’s underlying grievance, lawyers should be listening to and acknowledging the hurt, and be able to offer nontraditional ways for that hurt to be addressed. While Rosenbaum’s claim that our current system of justice is morally deficient does not seem to have been challenged, his suggestions as to how to change it have been met with charges of being naive and impractical.

Web.com’s Corporate Counsel Jonathan B. Wilson’s book Out of Balance: Prescriptions for Reforming the American Litigation System takes a less radical approach to reforming how we address our clients’ dilemmas, including advocating for arbitration, mediation and a number of other alternatives.

Thomas Barton, who teaches creative problem solving and preventive law at The Center for Creative Problem Solving at California Western School of Law in San Diego, extols creative legal problem solving not only for the satisfaction it gives the client, but also for the effect it has on the lawyer involved: it feels great to do creative work that really resolves the dilemma. See www.cwsl.edu/cps According to Barton, there are two major steps involved: expanding the context of the problem so that all the dimensions are exposed, and building a larger repertoire for resolution, which includes being open to whatever constitutes “success” in the client’s mind.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink cites research that shows that doctors who are viewed as a valued resource and are able to build a trusted relationship with their patients are not sued –even if they have committed malpractice. While admittedly a subjective standard, shouldn’t lawyers be aiming for that same type of relationship with their clients? The one that makes them “right” no matter what their advice is?