Attorney John Brownrigg Mediating in His ‘Sort of ’ Retirement 8/18/17 08/18/17 10:36:11 AM
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When he isn’t conducting a mediation, John Brownrigg can be found relaxing and reading in his back yard oasis. Mondays and Fridays are built into his calendar as non-work days.
Attorney John Brownrigg
Mediating in His ‘Sort of ’ Retirement
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
Sitting in his living room, in front of his big flat-screen Vizio that sees lots of baseball action, John Brownrigg recalled a life in the legal profession that continues today in his “retirement” where he works as a mediator.
Born in Detroit, Brownrigg moved here as a youngster in 1954 and it has been home since, other than for a stint in the Army. “I consider myself an Omahan,” the Creighton Prep and Creighton School of Law graduate proudly stated.
With his booming voice and calm demeanor, this is a man who seems to have come from central casting for the role of bringing peace to confrontational situations. In his “retirement,” Brownrigg has become one of the leading advocates for the increasingly popular use of mediation to resolve legal disputes.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t put in his share of time in the courtroom. He spent 40 years in practice, from 1974-2014, including 34 years with Erickson | Sederstrom, P.C., L.L.O. in Omaha. In addition he was president of the Omaha Bar Association and the Nebraska State Bar Association.
He now seems to have moved seamlessly into his current situation, working from an office out of his home near Memorial Park.
Mediation, he feels, has much to offer the litigants, but does it work in every area of the law?
“I would have to say ‘yes,’” Brownrigg stated, but “a lot depends on the kinds of personalities involved,” regardless of the area of the law involved.
He asked a key question: “Is there a real problem, or are personalities and feelings more the issue?”
Cases involving family matters and small businesses can be “real nasty,” he pointed out. Estate disputes, especially those involving family businesses or large amounts of agricultural property, can be challenging.
“Any time you have family involved it’s going to be more difficult and you have to be prepared for it,” Brownrigg said. “I’ve got lots of war stories.”
But, unfortunately, they can’t be shared – “Mediation is a confidential process.” The only thing, he pointed out, that is not confidential, is the settlement agreement the parties sign when settlement is achieved.
Brownrigg isn’t sure the use of mediation is growing, but he acknowledged that “there’s a lot more formal education on the subject.” He pointed to Creighton’s Werner Institute for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution as an example of that, but feels the demand for mediation, and the numbers of cases that are seen, are roughly the same as in the recent past.
Adding mediation to his work, prior to his retirement, was really a change, he admitted. “It was kind of an addition,” Brownrigg recalled. His trial work continued but mediation was added to his civil litigation caseload.
Mediation in Nebraska, he emphasized, was until the early1990s used almost exclusively in labor disputes and involved federal mediators. The practice of using the process outside that setting grew, in part, out of the Civil Justice Reform Act, which was passed by Congress in 1990. That legislation encouraged more rapid resolution of civil lawsuits. A mediation plan was drawn up for the Nebraska U.S. District Courts as a result.
“It’s still in place,” Brownrigg said. Mediation began to see expanded use in Nebraska thereafter, but it had been used in other jurisdictions long before it was in use here. As the process becomes increasingly accepted, Brownrigg said more young attorneys are wanting to get a toe-hold in mediation. Young lawyers want to observe cases he mediates, but he doesn’t allow it – again, the confidentiality issue.
“You’ve got to have grey hair and you’ve got to have about 20 years experience as a lawyer,” Brownrigg suggested, if one wants to seriously become involved in the kind of mediations he handles.
So, why does it work?
“I’d like to tell you it was magic, but it really isn’t,” he admitted.
Mediation brings together people who want to be heard and they tend to come in with strong feelings about their positions. “Often they shouldn’t have such fixed notions about the strength of their positions,” Brownrigg said.
But agreeing to work with a mediator saves money and time as opposed to a lengthy court case. “The result is virtually immediate,” he said, and thousands of dollars are saved. While it doesn’t work in every case, Brownrigg said any mediator likely will see more than 90 percent of cases settled.
“Of that less-than-10 percent [that don’t settle at the mediation], I suspect another five percent settle before going to trial.”
Usually, it is the attorneys representing clients involved in disputes who seek Brownrigg’s assistance.
He follows a policy of not mediating a dispute unless all parties have a lawyer. Brownrigg works from an office in his home, but the mediations take place elsewhere.
“People just tell me where to show up,” he said with a smile.
The number of civil trials is falling these days, he stated, but there will always be some disputes that cannot be settled. “Some cases just cry out to be tried,” he said. “There’s just no two ways about it.”
As his legal retirement continues, while serving as a mediator Brownrigg said technology is the biggest challenge he has found in today’s practice of law. Searching for records was once an easy matter of locating a few files in an office, he pointed out.
Today, there is so much more to it.
“It used to be simple … there wouldn’t be any media to worry about.” Now, it “sort of makes my head swim,” he admitted, pointing to Facebook, Twitter, and more.
Life in retirement, while not totally removed from the legal profession, does bring some new pleasures. “We do a lot of grand-parenting,” he said. John and his wife Rosemary have eight grandchildren, most living within blocks of them, including a young one who frequents their home on a regular basis.
“Lots of zoo and park trips,” are part of the new routine.
The two are both Civil War buffs, as evidenced by the books in their library.
The former college athlete – he played basketball at Rockhurst University – hopes to return to the golf course as he is completing his recovery from back surgery. He said he regained most of the inch he had lost on his 6-foot 7-inch frame after the surgery. He barely clears the ceiling in some rooms in his home. “I don’t even go into the basement,” he laughed.
“I hope to get back to the game [of golf],” he said longingly. “I was shut down from mediating for about four months and from golfing for about a year.”
To hasten that move he walks and works out.
As he settles into his sort of “retirement,” Brownrigg has no regrets about his career choice.
“My 40 years of lawyering, particularly with the firm I was with (Erickson | Sederstrom) … I was blessed,” he said. “You don’t stay somewhere that long unless you are comfortable where you are.”
Today, John Brownrigg seems extraordinarily comfortable.