Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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For Dodgers fans, this is shaping up to be a trying year, with the team a bit shy of the elements that are needed for post-season success, and with the issue of ownership of the team headed for an epic battle in divorce court.  Meanwhile, the story in the LA Times Saturday was about Frank McCourt adding a star trial lawyer to the team of legal talent he has arrayed against his wife.

“It’s like having your best athletes take the field,” said Loyola Law School professor and legal commentator Laurie Levenson. “You’ll see the best fight possible.”

I wonder whether they could fill Dodger Stadium with all of the people who would be excited to watch the best fight possible between the McCourts’ respective teams of lawyers.  I might pay to see that, but I’m probably not representative of the fan base.

For the rest of the Dodgers’ fans, the prospects are not quite as exciting.  The story in today’s LA Times was about the Dodgers’ collapse in the last game of their series against the well-funded Yankees, and how they are a couple of pitchers short of the staff they would need to have any chance of making it to the playoffs.  Fans are understandably frustrated that the McCourts are fielding the best possible legal team, while their baseball team seems a bit shortchanged.

Mediators know how to fix this problem.  It’s simple, really.  Just settle the divorce case and use some of the millions that would otherwise continue to flow to the McCourts’ many lawyers, to purchase the services of an ace starter and perhaps a couple of choice additions to the bullpen.  It’s not that these lawyers aren’t worth every penny they charge.  It’s just that Dodger fans would rather see the money spent in ways that more directly benefit the team.  While, as today’s LA Times story reports, Dodger management continues to assert that the McCourt divorce has had no effect on the team’s hiring decisions, fans are understandably skeptical. It only stands to reason that with ownership of the team in such an unsettled state, the putative owners may not be putting maximum efforts on the baseball field.

It is possible that Frank McCourt’s decision to hire a top trial lawyer could help position the divorce case for settlement, and Stephen Susman himself (the new attorney) says that everyone is still hoping for a settlement;  but other commentators quoted in Saturday’s story suggest that McCourt’s strategy of hiring an ace trial attorney instead of an ace pitcher is going to make it more likely that the case will go to trial.  Even if the money that Frank McCourt spends on legal fees does not directly affect the team’s salary budget, the cost of his legal team still must be affecting his overall resources.  Of course, if he wins, he can argue that it was all worthwhile, and to the team’s advantage also.  A mediator would ask both parties, however, if they have fully taken into account all of the costs and risks they are assuming.  Have the McCourts, for example, fully factored in the cost and delay of an appeal, assuming, as seems likely, that one party is less than completely satisfied with the trial court’s ultimate ruling?

Another argument that mediators frequently use to help solve problems like the McCourts’ is to suggest that they consider more carefully the psychic toll that a lengthy trial takes on their ability to run the business.  In this case that is not just a purely selfish consideration.  The distraction of a divorce trial ultimately affects the team’s performance, and therefore affects the mood of an entire city.  We were uplifted by the Lakers winning a second-in-a-row NBA championship, but now we are depressed by the prospect of a wasted baseball season.  The McCourts need to take some civic responsibility and do what is best for the team and the city.  That may require patching up some of their differences, resolving the ownership issue somehow, and letting everyone get on with their lives.  Most likely all that will happen eventually, but only at a continued extravagant cost and after further delays.  Fans would of course prefer that settlement be accomplished more expeditiously, and lots of mediators would no doubt be happy to have the opportunity to help resolve this dispute by negotiated agreement rather than costly and protracted litigation.

Meanwhile every business owner, and beyond that, every person with a career, or a family, or a life,  can take from this story the lesson that those experienced with lawsuits already know: It is much more productive to concentrate your efforts on the future than on the past.  Lawsuits harm those efforts because they cost too much money and they force litigants to think about the past rather than the future.  That is why lawsuits should be resolved expeditiously and with minimal distraction from things that are more important in life.  Like baseball.

(Anne Cusack LA Times photo)