Lawyers Join Ex-Judges, Would-be Litigants in Bypassing Courts for Faster Hearings

Several prominent Los Angeles attorneys, fed up with the intense stress and long hours of their jobs, are bailing out to join the swelling ranks of private judges who preside over mediations, arbitrations and full-fledged private trials.

Demand has been climbing for such "alternative dispute resolution" services, which are seen as an affordable, efficient means of settling civil matters outside the public court system.

Private judges in L.A. typically charge $300 to $400 an hour, but rates can soar as high as $1,200 in complex cases with multiple issues and defendants, meaning private judges can rake in tens of thousands of dollars for a few days work. And the work is typically much more flexible and lower stress than that handled by a senior-level attorney, several sources said.

"You don't have the pressure of clients, you don't have the financial pressure of today's legal environment of putting in a lot of hours so you can make a lot of money, you're answerable to yourself as opposed to your partners and colleagues for pulling your share," said Alan Rothenberg, who retired from his partnership at Latham & Watkins on Dec. 31 to become a private judge. "And from a calendaring standpoint, your schedule is much more orderly and predictable."

Other high-profile L.A. attorneys who have recently bolted into the field of private judging include Lloyd C. Loomis, formerly the top labor attorney at Atlantic Richfield Co. and Brian Donnelly, formerly senior vice president and general counsel for Blue Cross of California. Then there's Stefan Mason, a former partner at Munger, Tolles & Olsen, Michael Weinstock, formerly general counsel at FHP International and chief legal counsel at Mattel Inc., and Eugene Moscovitch, a senior associate at Lewis, D'Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard. Moscovitch was recently appointed to serve as a mediator on a panel hearing civil rights cases filed by some of the Rampart criminal defendants.

"It's a huge trend right now. We get about three resumes a week from attorneys who want to get into the business," said Lucie Barron, president of Action Dispute Resolution Services, the Century City-based firm where Rothenberg now works.

Amy Newman, president of Alternative Resolution Centers in West L.A., agreed that more and more lawyers are exploring the field.

"Not a day goes by that I don't get at least two or three phone calls from attorneys wanting to get on our panel," she said.

Less stress, decent money

At ADR Services, hourly rates vary depending on a jurist's background and experience. For example, former Superior Court judges typically charge $300 an hour, judges from the Court of Appeals charge $350 an hour, and retired state California Supreme Court judges charge $400 an hour or more.

Rothenberg's hourly rate is $350. However, he's only been on the job for three weeks and his rate could go up.

"It depends on how well I do. I don't know if $350 an hour will scare people away. But if I get booked up, we may charge more," he said.

Private judges can generally expect to keep about 75 percent of the hourly rate, with the rest going to the firm, Barron said.

The trend also stems from the fact that a lot of attorneys simply don't like being attorneys, according to John Horon, president of L.A.-based Alternative Dispute Resolution International, Inc., who teaches ADR and marketing at Loyola Law School and Pepperdine University's Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution.

"Those courses are filled with attorneys who are either tired of practicing law or who have gone into mediation as a lawyer and see these private judges doing (dispute resolution) for $400 an hour. They feel they can do it without having all the stress of preparing for trial and picking up new clients," he said.

Private dispute resolution emerged as a business in the early 1980s as an alternative to the overcrowded public court system, where it often took four or five years for civil lawsuits to reach trial. Since then, the number of disputes referred to mediation, arbitration and full-fledged private trials has rapidly increased.

Today, private judging is a huge business nationally, but nowhere more so than in litigious L.A., where more than 200 former judges and attorneys compete for the plum mediation and arbitration assignments.

Retired judges' turf

Despite the growing number of attorneys trying to get in on the action, alternative dispute resolution has historically been, and still is, primarily the domain of retired judges.

ADR Services has more than 100 retired judges and 18 attorneys on its panel of private jurists. Only two of those attorneys Rothenberg and Mason work for the firm on a full-time, exclusive basis.

The ratio is about the same at Alternative Resolution Centers, which has more than 100 retired judges and only 15 attorneys on its panel.

Very few of the attorneys trying to get into the business successfully make the transition from zealous advocate to neutral judge, according to most industry analysts.

"People look for name recognition when selecting a private judge, but most attorneys don't have name recognition, and those who do have built a reputation as being a great trial attorney and are known for being either very pro-plaintiff or pro-defense," Barron said. "If they aren't considered to be impartial and fair, no one uses them."

Another obstacle, according to Barron, is the risk associated with making a major career transition.

"Very few attorneys can afford to undertake this challenge on a full-time basis," she said. "By the time they have established a legal practice, they can't give that up completely to go into the private-judging sector because they have families to support, living expenses and built-in overhead. It sometimes takes years to build up a whole new career in this business."

There's also a credibility problem, according to Moscovitch, who has been working full time as a private judge at Alternative Resolution Center for one year.

"Attorneys don't have the automatic credibility a retired judge has, so they have to work a lot harder to earn it," he said.

Humbling prospect

In addition to the marketing and economic challenges, there's also the more sensitive issue of ego.

"The hardest thing for most lawyers wanting to get into the business is having the humility to go out there and pound on doors again and say, 'I'm here, give me work,'" Barron said. "Most attorneys reach a certain stature in life and don't want to do that again."

Combine these challenges with the fact that many attorneys simply cannot make the intellectual transition from advocacy to neutrality and it's easy to see why private dispute resolution has historically been the exclusive province of retired judges.

But these obstacles don't seem to faze Rothenberg, who has built a reputation for being a risk-taker and trendsetter in many disparate fields.

"I don't know if any of my colleagues are considering doing this, although I will say that the universal response among fellow lawyers has been to congratulate me and say how they jealous they are," he said. "I don't know if they are just trying to be nice to me, but it will be interesting to see what happens."

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