Interview by David Matz
Hema Patel is the first TMG Mediation Fellow. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 2013 where she worked in the Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program, and was the advanced training director in the Harvard Mediation Program. After graduation she worked in the Real Estate Group at Debevoise and Plimpton in NYC. At TMG she will mediate cases under the supervision of senior mediators and will be billed at a lower rate. In her first few months at TMG, Hema has been observing Brad mediate.
David Matz: What is it that draws you to mediation?
Hema Patel: Maybe the best answer is to give you an example. A week after a case I watched recently, a client wrote to us saying that this had been the most difficult period in his life. Brad’s kindness throughout the mediation process and his ability to resolve the dispute — when they had thought that there was no way it could be resolved without going to court — meant so much to them. I feel like for me that’s a huge part of it: providing a service that has a lot of value in people’s individual lives.
DM: Was that a surprise to you?
HP: No. I remember a lot of students in law school kept saying that mediation is not intellectual enough, that it focuses too much on the soft skills, and not enough on thinking and legal skills. In my few months here I’ve found that has just not been the case. There’s a very real emphasis on legal analysis and truly knowing the facts of the case, the law, and understanding both sides’ strengths and weaknesses. I found myself enjoying that aspect of it.
Another great thing is the wide variety of lawyers that pass through our doors. It’s wonderful to see different styles of lawyering and the advocacy of lawyers who genuinely care for their clients. It’s nice to see that as a young lawyer, and that’s something that we just don’t get enough of in law school.
DM: When observing a case, do you find yourself putting yourself into the mediator’s chair?
HP: Yes. I think a part of it is simply starting out reading the overviews and thinking about what questions I will ask, and making a list — these are the questions I would like to ask — and then seeing what actually happens during the live mediation. I get to see, when Brad gets to those questions, how he follows the flow of the conversation and adjusts himself accordingly, either to keep the same direction or sometimes to shift to more productive topics. What he encourages me to do is to point out what I would do differently. When I observe him I try to find one or two things that I can say, “Why did you ask that then, or why did you ask it like this, or why didn’t you ask that?” Sometimes he decides to not ask a certain question, or to not relay a certain piece of information until the time feels right. Those always turn out to be the interesting moments for me, something that you only get to learn by watching those with decades of experience in the field.
DM: What are the most striking aspects of mediation as you have observed it?
HP: The two traits that a good mediator needs are optimism and perseverance. There are so many times, either at the beginning of the day or when you feel like you’ve gotten everything done except for that one little piece, where the lawyers and the clients say: I’m done. Brad really doesn’t give up, and even when a case doesn’t settle, he calls, he works with them to keep whatever offers were on the table open, and he keeps at it.
Brad is also very good about telling stories and jokes. It surprised me how important that trait can be during a difficult mediation. He does it in a way that's thoughtful, too. It’s not out of nowhere, but instead he does it in a way that makes the connection with a person. So when tensions are high, he can often bring them down.
DM: Has there been a change in you, even in the few months you’ve been here?
HP: Yes. For me, the biggest shift has come with realizing, OK, I can do this as well. I no longer feel like you have to have thirty years of legal experience. It’s more about having some of those traits I talked about, and also about having the confidence that you can do this and believe that you can.
DM: Can you say something about how mediation fits into your life more generally?
HP: I really want to give back to the community, and I think that’s two-fold. One is that I do enjoy teaching others about communication and the mediation process and helping people resolve disputes through that. It would be nice to do that, whether it’s working with children and talking to them about resolving conflicts peacefully, with an emphasis on communication, or whether it’s working at a university level. [DM: In law school and since, Hema has done a good deal of training.] The other aspect is that I did a lot of cases in law school that served an underserved population that the legal world sometimes forgets. It’s important to me to continue doing that also, whether it’s in a mediator capacity or a lawyer capacity.
DM: Any final thoughts?
HP: Yes. I got here thanks to TMG. You had this wonderful idea, a really great opportunity, and you made it happen. I’m very grateful.