Verdicts & Settlements ADR Profile
By Leonard Novarro
Plaintiffs’ attorneys often select neutral Louise A. LaMothe, despite her defense background.
They said they wanted a businessman’s divorce. What they really wanted was someone to salve old wounds.
In one of the first cases Louise A. LaMothe mediated, a breach of contract dispute between twin brothers who jointly owned a retail store, they left the first session and never returned.
“They framed their dispute as a legal matter, when they really had jealousies and a lot of rivalry,” recalls LaMothe. “That was very frustrating for me. I just didn’t have the tools necessary to help them,” she says.
LaMothe is the first to point out that she’s not a psychologist. But according to her colleagues, she brings to the alternative dispute resolution process compassion, insight, seemingly boundless energy and the intellectual diligence to do whatever it takes to resolve a matter.
And these qualities have been recognized in some surprising quarters.
“She comes from the defense side,” says Bill Rehwald, a partner in Rehwald Rameson Lewis & Glassner of Woodland Hills. “For me to use someone from the defense side as a mediator, they have to demonstrate to me that they have some compassion for the plaintiff who has been harmed.
“And she does do that,” he says.
Other plaintiffs’ lawyers agree.
“I don’t think she comes across as being on one side or the other,” says Scott Radovich, a sole practitioner from San Luis Obispo. “She’s a good neutral arbitrator.”
These perceptions jibe with LaMothe’s focused approach to ADR.
“The essence of what makes a good mediator is someone who can connect with people in all positions,” explains LaMothe.
But connecting with client and their counsel takes more than just being warm and friendly, she adds.
“There is a concern that some lawyers have, particularly on the plaintiffs’ side, and I think of employment cases because I handle a good many of them, they worry about people who have handled management interests having a tendency to minimize the concerns of plaintiffs, to make them seem less deserving in some way,” she notes.
LaMothe is especially sensitive to the plaintiffs’ bar’s concerns on this issue.
“I think that a lot of plaintiff lawyers need convincing that using someone from the defense side will nonetheless provide a just result,” she says.
According to LaMothe, the overriding issue in ADR is the neutral’s facility with interpersonal communications.
“Anyone who is a good mediator has to have the ability to connect, she says. “It doesn’t mean you accept that person’s position hook, line and sinker. It just means you can empathize and try to move that person to a just resolution.”
Radovich, recalling a dispute LaMothe mediated for him, praises LaMothe’s techniques in the mediation process.
“I found her outstanding in the way she conducted the meeting and kept it, on track,” he says.”
Before turning to private judging full time, LaMothe, 54, spent 25 years arguing complicated business cases in state and federal courts.
Her caseload at the time included securities class actions, professional negligence matters, business torts, entertainment transactions, insurance bad faith, partnership disputes, fraud, auto product liability, sexual orientation discrimination and allegations of sexual, harassment.
By 1996, however, law practice had lost its luster for LaMothe.
“I felt the tenor of law practice changing to become not so much adversarial but more confrontational,” she says.
Litigation did not appear to LaMothe to be about problem solving.
“The whole practice of law seemed toxic to me: throwing up barriers, being argumentative, she says.
According to LaMothe, this was not what she wanted to do when she decided to attend law school.
“I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I want to use this training. I don’t want to abandon the law just because finding the atmosphere increasingly unpleasant'” she says.
So LaMothe began winding down a full-time career as a litigator and building a second one as an arbitrator and mediator. After three years of preparation, study and concentration, she was ready to go out on her own. In 1999, she opened her own office as a full-time neutral, operating from Santa Barbara, where she lives.
Change was nothing new to LaMothe, who grew up in a Navy family and moved around a lot, eventually settling in Monterey.
As an undergraduate majoring in history at Stanford University, the law was the furthest thing from her mind. Her fast love was history. The dilemma was what to do with that background after graduation.
“I started casting around for things to do. There was no career counseling at the time for young women in college,” so options were limited, she recalls.
“I didn’t want to be a nurse or teacher. So, it looked for awhile like I was going to be a secretary,” she says.
However, some of her friends at school who were law students encouraged her to apply to their program.
Although legal studies turned out to be LaMothe’s career path, her interest in history affords her a unique perspective.
“It gave me an insight, into people’s stories and a vantage point to see where stories differ, she says. “Because of the huge tapestry of human experience [history] showed, it helped to flesh out the stories.”
A year after earning her law from Stanford in 1971, she took a teaching job at the University of Kansas Law School in Lawrence, Kan.
That summer, while attending a four-week training session in Boulder, under the auspices of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, she met her mentor, Prentice Marshall, who later became a federal judge.
“He was a very inspirational kind of guy,” LaMothe said. “[As a trial lawyer,] he had the ability to communicate with people and to connect with people. He was able to draw on universal human experiences to enable a jury to see the rectitude in his clients’ case.”
In much the same manner, LaMothe draws on her own experiences to bring parties together in mediation.
“You look for a hook, a way to have your experiences, your stories resonate with the parties. Then you use the rapport you establish in helping them craft a solution,” she says.
But this technique has its limits, according to LaMothe.
“You can’t be predisposed to impose a solution on people. [In mediation,] you have to try to the fullest extent possible to draw it out of them,” she says.
The following summer, LaMothe returned to Boulder as an instructor at the institute.
“It was a very important part of my training as a lawyer and my legal life,” she says.
In 1974, she returned to California and took a position with the Los Angeles firm of Irell & Manella.
In 1978, she became a partner — a ground breaker. At the time, she was one of only a handful of female attorneys working there. Today, the firm employs mere than 50.
“I felt very validated. It was great breakthrough,” she says. “I knew no other woman was asked to become partner in that firm.
“It was a great challenge because the standards of that firm are very high. I also felt I was gaining a toehold in the club.”
Longtime friend Joan Caplis called LaMothe “a force of nature.”
“She was a great role model for me when I was starting out in my real estate career,” Caplis says, “She always told me I could do it.”
Seeking more management experience, LaMothe Ieft Irell & Manella in 1992 to become a partner at Los Angeles’ Riordan & Mckinzie. There, she represented emerging companies in intellectual property matters.
When she decided to wind down her practice in 1996, she became of counsel with Bird, Marella, Boxer & Wolpert, also in Los Angeles.
At the same time, she gained experience as a mediator and arbitrator by serving on American Arbitration Association, U.S. District Court and Los Angeles Superior Court neutral panels.
All of this experience working directly with clients and their counsel taught LaMothe one of the most important lessons any neutral can ever learn.
“I try to empower the parties to take charge of their disputes and not just rely on their lawyers,” she says.
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