APRIL 6, 2007  |  VERDICTS

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Poker-Faced Mediator Plays Close to the Vest


ROBERT LEVINS / Daily Journal    


By Emma Dewald
Daily Journal Staff Writer

      Leonard S. Levy is not a guy you'd want sitting across from you at a poker table.
      It's the last hour of a recent half-day mediation, and the numbers are beginning to fly. Although it has been a grueling process, the figures being tossed around his San Fernando Valley office seem like they could add up, fairly quickly, to a settlement.
      It's a strange case. The damages aren't high, and the legal issues aren't complicated, but the facts are muddled. Levy has read the briefs, but a couple of points have him confused initially. He works through those, then draws on a chalkboard for a bit. Soon enough, it seems, people are talking money.
      Neither side's attorneys know how close their numbers are to the other's - they can't be sure if they're offering enough, asking for too much or making a nuisance of themselves. They ask Levy what he thinks of a figure, and he throws it back to them, asking what their client would think.
      Levy, clad in a gray suit, a blue shirt with white stripes, a silver tie and cuff links, knows how the pieces can be made to fit, but he's not talking. Instead, he shuttles between the conference room and his office, stopping to chat near his secretary's desk while explaining his mediation ethics, how the parties need to find equilibrium themselves and how it's not his job to decide who gets how much.
      He's not above nudging: He tells one party, in no uncertain terms, where he believes his client has problems. Levy nods, laughs and tells stories about meeting famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and how his back went out playing golf, but he's not giving anything away.
      Levy, 58, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and earned his bachelor's degree at UCLA before attending Loyola Law School. Law school was his destination early on, when he decided that trying cases was "the neatest thing you could do."
      He never has planned to leave Los Angeles. Levy met his future wife, a little sister of his fraternity, at UCLA. She was dating one of his fraternity brothers, but she asked him to a dance. They were married before Levy began law school.
      After graduation, Levy chose his first firm, Stark and Siener, because its lawyers promised he would be in court every day.
      "And I was," Levy said.
      He was admitted to the bar in 1973. The day after he was sworn in, he had his first trial. It was a subrogation case, and he was told to meet his client at the courthouse.
      "After 11 months, I had been in the courthouse quite a bit," he said. "It was great training."
      Eventually, Levy found himself working in the surety and fidelity area, which he describes as "business litigation with a specialty-insurance veneer over it."
      His firm had sureties as clients. In some ways, he said, it was not unlike mediating.
      "The disputes were always between two other parties," Levy said, adding that given the wide range of businesses that need bonding, "there aren't really a lot of issues that I haven't ... been exposed to in some form."
      After more than two decades litigating, he began considering a move to mediation in 1994 - right when the Northridge earthquake displaced Levy and his wife from their house for a year.
      "It was a year of a lot of trauma," he said.
      Adding to the trauma was a health crisis: Levy spent 17 days in the hospital with ulcerative colitis. He contemplated whether he wanted to continue trying cases.
      "It can take a toll," he said, adding that he can still recall the words of his doctor: "You have to decide whether you want to give up body parts for your clients."
      But Levy did not begin mediating for another three years. Instead, he enrolled in a mediation course offered by Pepperdine University School of Law's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. The transition took a while.
      "You can't just stop your law practice," he said.
      Levy initially volunteered for small-claims court, then for the Los Angeles County Superior Court panel - necessary steps for any would-be mediator not a retired judge or a former baseball commissioner, he said.
      "The business of mediation is more difficult than people anticipate," Levy said, comparing it to practicing law.
      After all, he added, a mediator doesn't get called in unless you can get "two parties who are fighting to agree on something."
      John Zaimes, a Los Angeles partner at Reed Smith, had Levy proposed by the plaintiff in a wrongful-termination case.
      "We're not really stubborn about wanting to pick our mediator," Zaimes said. "If the plaintiff picks the mediator, that can be a better thing."
      Zaimes added that emotions often run high in termination cases. In this case, the plaintiff was a human-resources manager who had been involved intimately in similar cases.
      The case "didn't have a great chance of settling," according to Zaimes.
      But it did. Zaimes isn't sure how Levy made it happen - "It's always a little hard to tell because you're only seeing part of what goes on," Zaimes said - but somehow the mediator did.
      What the attorney did see impressed him.
      "I thought he had a very calm and reasoned demeanor and could be persuasive," Zaimes said.
      John A. Blue, a name partner at Blue & Schoor in Los Angeles, has used Levy on three occasions.
      "From the outset, it was very clear that he was a dogged mediator," Blue said. "He's a natural in understanding business concepts."
      Blue has seen Levy get tough with parties whose expectations are too high - in one case, Blue's client.
      "Len was a good ally" in explaining the realities of the situation to the client, Blue said. "The client was hearing it from somebody who was supposed to be neutral."
      One case Levy mediated for Blue failed to settle, but the lawyer maintains there was little Levy could have done differently.
      "It was because the other side took the position that they wanted it all and weren't going to settle for anything less," Blue said.
      Asked about his settlement record, Levy said, "I don't even keep track of that."
      Back at the half-day mediation, Levy listens patiently as lawyers complain about their counterparts. He takes the heat out of the argument and notes that such talk will not get anybody anywhere.
      The numbers resurface. Levy nods; he's not giving anything away.
      At last, the mediation settles. The numbers work out. The lawyers draft an agreement, pending approval by the clients.
      Levy again mentions meeting Wooden. Everyone looks relieved. Trial has been avoided, again.
      Here are some lawyers who have used Levy's services:

      John A. Blue, Blue & Schoor, Los Angeles; Ryan P. Eskin, Littler Mendelson, Century City; Toy R. Fields III, Lamb & Kawakami, Los Angeles; Glen L. Kulik, Kulik, Gottesman, Mouton & Siegel, Sherman Oaks; Ian S. Lapin, Los Angeles; Howard A. Levy, Tarzana; Robert M. Ross, Klass, Helman & Ross, Encino; Gary N. Schwartz, Spile, Siegal, Leff & Goor, Encino; Benjamin H. Seal II, Murchison & Cumming, Los Angeles; Stanley Stern, Pacific Palisades.

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