A man buys an evil-looking golden rat in a mysterious antique shop. As he walks home more and more rats start to follow him. Seized by fear he runs to the quayside, and jumps on a boat. Thousands of rats leap after him - and plunge to their doom into the swirling water.
Next day he returns to the antique shop. The owner drily remarks, “Ah, I suppose that you now want to hear the legend of the Golden Rat..?” “Not at all,” replies the man. “Do you have a Golden Lawyer?”
Let’s not be too hard on lawyers. The fees charged by my London solicitors when we bought our new house seemed startlingly reasonable compared to the avarice of the estate agents.
On the other hand, in 2010/11 total revenues at the top 100 UK law firms reached £14.27 billion. Our hearts swell in patriotic pride at this mighty show of City global strength, just as we glumly wonder how those amazing fees are to be passed on to us.
Lawyers have one superb phrase for cases which drag on, much to their own profit: a ‘dripping roast’, hapless clients slowly twisting in the heat of litigation as their life juices ebb away.
One such case recently ended. Yorkshire’s Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster) battled with Cropton Brewery over which had the right to use a white rose logo. The judge proclaimed a ‘score draw’. Yorkshire pride had, he observed, combined with the English legal system to impose costs on the two sides out of all proportion to the issues at stake. It all should have been settled amicably by mediation.
That case exemplifies an important problem in all dispute resolution, commercial and diplomatic. What exactly is the dispute all about? Resources? Or emotions?
This is where mediation comes in. Rather than outsource responsibility for solving a problem to a judge or arbitrator, mediators quietly help parties to stand back and think hard about what it is they really want, and what they are prepared to pay for it.
Take continuing international wrangling over Kosovo. Following its proclamation of independence in 2008, Kosovo has been recognised as an independent state by 77 countries, including most EU member states and the United States, Canada and Japan. However, the planet’s emerging powerplayers (China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa) support the Belgrade/Serbia position.
The European Union is trying quietly to mediate between Belgrade and Pristina, using the fact that both parties say they want EU membership. It is hard going, partly because the European Union itself is not united on Kosovo’s status. More importantly, Belgrade insists that the majority of countries in the world representing the majority of the world’s population support its side of the argument: Kosovo’s status as a negotiating partner must take that into account.
The Kosovo situation exemplifies a problem at the heart of diplomacy: how to deal with disputes where the practical issues at stake are a lot smaller than the intense heat they generate. Yet skilled mediators can make progress even in such unpropitious cases, patiently exploring new ideas through step-by-step quiet trust-building. Their greatest successes may never be publicly acknowledged – part of the final deal can be all about letting the undeserving parties claim all the credit.
The moral? Golden Mediators are cheaper - and better – than either Golden Rats or Golden Lawyers.