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Online Neutrals Reviews on the Way (Corporate Counsel)

Corporate Counsel Magazine (10/1/09) (9/28/09)
by David Hechler

If there are online user ratings for books and restaurants, why can't there be a similar system for mediators and arbitrators? That reasoning led the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR) to strike an outsourcing deal with a little-known company that has already introduced such a service. CPR's new arbitrator rating system is slated to launch in January, and if it succeeds, it could put the concept on the map.

CPR is an influential Manhattan-based nonprofit that promotes alternative dispute resolution. The group tries to help its member companies and law firms make informed decisions when choosing neutrals (as arbitrators and mediators are often called). Its rating system will survey lawyers who have used the neutrals that CPR has screened and listed on its panel. Members will be able to access the reviews, but not the reviewers' names, which will be kept anonymous. And the cost will be absorbed by the neutrals.

The program will be run by a small company called Positively Neutral, and accessible to CPR members via a password-protected Web site. CPR chief executive Kathy Bryan says they haven't decided yet how much neutrals will have to pay to be rated, or what information will be available to companies that aren't CPR members.

PD Villarreal, a member of CPR's board of directors and an associate general counsel at Schering-Plough Corporation, USA, says it's an important step forward. For years, companies have complained about an information gap in the arbitration field. Finally, that will change. "It's another piece of information," says Villarreal—just like lawyer ratings on Martindale. "And we crave that."

There is a catch, however. The success of CPR's rating system depends on the cooperation of its panel of 580 neutrals. Not only will they bear the cost (which CPR hopes to keep modest), the system will be entirely voluntary. If they don't sign up, there won't be anyone to rate.

Bryan says she isn't worried about that. "I am very optimistic that it will be adopted," she says. She doesn't expect instant results, though. Her team is only beginning to roll out the plan this fall. If a quarter of CPR's neutrals sign up in the first six months, "that would be a success," says Bryan, who was an in-house lawyer at Motorola, Inc., for 17 years before joining CPR in 2006.

The impetus for the rating system came from CPR members themselves, Bryan explains. Large companies, which constitute about two-thirds of the 400 member organizations (the balance are law firms), were particularly eager for the organization's help. But the solution was pure serendipity.

As Bryan searched for a system early this year, she happened to be contacted by Positively Neutral, based in Rye Brook, New York. Its Web site allows users to search arbitrators and mediators by specialty and location. Users can also see how lawyers who have used the neutrals have rated them on criteria such as fairness, preparation, and overall performance. Often reviewers write comments as well.

The deal with CPR is a godsend to Positively Neutral founder Rob Harris, who says it's a "validation of all we've been doing." After four years, his firm has signed up fewer than 100 neutrals in five states. Harris acknowledges that until recently, his company's marketing was "dormant." The venture was started by three business partners, and two of them (including Harris) had "day jobs." The third was the full-time executive in charge. But just as they were building momentum, this partner died.

Now Positively Neutral is gearing up with a different focus. "It was initially conceived to be a business development tool for the neutral," Harris explains. Its new aim is to make deals with organizations like CPR, says Harris, who has been an outside lawyer and a neutral himself.

Even after an organization signs on to Positively Neutral's system, its success is still in the hands of the neutrals. And some may have qualms. One who works at a big law firm says that he's adopting a wait-and-see attitude. "I worry about false information," says the lawyer, who requested anonymity. What would it take to get him on board? "If it reached a point where if you didn't participate, you wouldn't be considered a credible arbitrator, I suppose you'd have to," he says.

Harris explains that safeguards are built in. Neutrals review their ratings in advance, and can always pull their listings. But it's all or nothing, Harris emphasizes—they can't cherry-pick good evaluations and throw out bad ones.

The system looks good to at least one potential user. Jack Robinson is the general counsel of Benistar, the Connecticut-based benefit plan adviser. He'd never heard of Positively Neutral, but Robinson hires neutrals from all over. "Up until now," he says, "I've had to rely on word of mouth through other lawyers and other neutrals." While interviewed for this story, Robinson clicked on the Positively Neutral listing for a neutral he'd hired based on a recommendation. There was a lot more there than could be learned from a phone call, Robinson says: "It tells you everything you need to know about him. How would you know this if you didn't know him—or someone who used him?"

The tool could also help lawyers find neutrals who are relatively new to the game. Ruth Raisfeld, a neutral listed with the American Arbitration Association, CPR, and Positively Neutral, says lawyers often take the easy route and don't bother seeking out new talent. "There's a reluctance to use anyone but household names," she says, with 90 percent of the work going to 10 percent of the neutrals. The choice is too important, Raisfeld maintains, to be based "on gossip or word of mouth."

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