Portola Valley attorney Vic Schachter teaches dispute resolution skills around the world


Back in 2005 on a street in Delhi, India, there stood a four-story building with spaces meant for windows but lacking glass. Inside were the offices and courtrooms of 200 judges, according to attorney and Portola Valley resident Vic Schachter. Also inside and waiting for the judges' attention were ordinary Indian citizens whose cases had yet to be heard. Monsoon rains would soak them, and the hundreds of monkeys running around would steal food and occasionally bite people, including children.

At the time, the Indian court system had a case backlog of 32 million cases, Mr. Schachter says. In 2005, he moved there with his wife Jan Schachter, to set up a mediation center on the fourth floor of that building to provide people with a way to resolve disputes without the costs, delays, formalities and emotionally wrenching experiences of litigation.

The case backlog is still in excess of 30 million, Mr. Schachter says, but the mediation center is a going concern. Windows are in, private meeting rooms have been set up, as has a formal reception area, and the monkeys are mostly gone, dispatched by large, fanged langur monkeys brought in on leashes to scare off their smaller brethren. The building, Mr Schachter says, is now "a very handsome corner."

Mr. Schachter, a litigator for 50 years and a partner with the San Francisco law firm Fenwick & West, is the founder, in 2012, and president of the nonprofit Foundation for Sustainable Rule of Law Initiatives. He is noteworthy in that he has never lost a case in trial, he says, and he has a team of noteworthy judges and attorneys. Together, they train lawyers and judges in communities in democracies that lack effective mediation systems.

So far, they've helped create sustainable systems in India, Bulgaria, Croatia and the Republic of Georgia, Mr. Schachter says. He and his foundation colleagues pay their way -- about $3,000 to $5,000 per person per trip -- including food and lodging, while local officials often pick up costs for interpreters and drivers, he says. The foundation sometimes offers a small stipend.

Training for judges includes learning to recognize cases that are better handled through mediation, he says. Lawyers are trained to maintain neutrality while at the same time standing in the shoes of each party, helping them understand their real interests, and then getting them together to find resolutions. "It's (a) focus on resolving the problem between the parties rather than who wins and who loses," Mr. Schachter says. "The idea is to change mindsets to move away from retaliation and recrimination."

A line from the Persian poet Rumi, he says, neatly captures the foundation's goal: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field," Rumi says. "I'll meet you there."

The mediation centers in India have yielded a settlement rate of 60 percent to 65 percent in some 200,000 cases since 2005, Mr. Schachter says. The rate would be higher but for the family law cases that are particularly difficult, not just in India but everywhere, he says.

It's not uncommon to find court backlogs in democracies with an abundance of people in poverty who never get access to peaceful and timely dispute resolution, Mr. Schachter says. Unresolved disputes and the ensuing frustration underlies much of the violence and illegal conduct in the world, he says. In India, authorities resolve just 6 percent of criminal cases, a statistic he calls "atrocious."

In the absence of effective dispute resolution, people may turn to informal enforcement by toughs and thugs, systems that tend not to build confidence, Mr. Schachter says. "Where there's a good rule of law process, people respond to peaceful dispute resolutions and abide by the result," he says. When fewer people resort to the courts, space opens up for cases in need of trials, he says.

Turf battles can erupt. "People will resist the program because it takes away their power base to operate through bribery and influence," Mr. Schachter says, adding that some may remain unpersuaded that bribery is a not a good system.

These communities often have indigenous methods of mediation, often informal, and they can serve as a starting point, he says. "We don't come in with our model. We look at what they have and try to build on it," he says.

Building bridges

"I think Vic has an amazing track record of working on rule of law and mediation (issues) around the world," says foundation board member Richard Seeborg, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

There's an extreme need for sustainable legal systems in developing countries, and "Vic has a real knack for getting in on the ground and actually getting something done," Judge Seeborg says. "It takes a long time and it really requires someone who perseveres, and it's not easy, and he does that."

Rebecca Westerfield, a retired judge, a mediator and a foundation board member, says she's worked with Mr. Schachter in India and will again. She commended him on his methodology. "What I appreciate about Vic's approach ... is that he works on the ground with people, and that he also works from the top" of the legal and judicial communities.

His strength is the people he brings in, Ms. Westerfield says. They are experienced mediators, former judges, "folks who can talk about policy, about organizational structure to leaders, as well as implement policy on the ground."

"He's really well known as helping to create bridges," she says, "to give an objective view of everything, to identify gaps and where bridges need to be built." He is high-energy and very dedicated to creating a fair and efficient system that delivers justice, Ms. Westerfield says.

"You can't take the American model, whatever that is, and put it on top of another model," she says. "Very, very few people want to be in conflict." A key matter for a mediator is to discover who a conflict is helping. The answer can sometimes lead to something creative. "That's the key," she says, "to have it lead to a creative force, not a destructive force."

Jan Schachter often travels with her husband, and her experiences aid her in being a detached observer, she says. If her husband is engaged, participants may turn to her. "I have a really good sense of the process and what's involved," she says. "I can observe what's happening and transmit my impressions to Vic and others as a non-engaged participant."

When officials from these communities visit the United States, Ms. Schachter is the host. Asked whether gender issues come up in the mediation training, she says she can't recall any instances. India has "a huge number of women judges and attorney," she says. "They have a great respect for women and the legal system."

Building trust

The foundation has centers on the subcontinent and in Southeast Europe and there is more ground to plow, but not all of it is fertile.

In all of Africa, Botswana is the one functioning democracy that would support a mediation program of the type he is offering, though Rwandan officials have shown a very strong interest, Mr. Schachter says.

In Pakistan, the judiciary is not sufficiently independent, he says. Asked how to determine a judiciary's independence, the key is private meetings -- with justices, attorneys general, legislators and bar association members. "You find out real fast," he says.

He has made mistakes. In Delhi, for example, Mr. Schachter says he did not adequately consider his program's cultural impact, nor did he anticipate the level of resistance. He says he alienated the bar association by not consulting with them and allowing them to own the process, so the lawyers went on strike.

Legal community members are not above exaggerating states of readiness to work with the foundation, he says. A judge may claim the bar association is on board, only to be belied by a bar member. It's critical to build relationships of trust with top people, he says. "Once you build that trust, it is unbelievable how they open up the doors to you."

The foundation is in informal talks with Mexico. Timing is an issue because the judiciary "is facing a number of reform challenges, and it may not be able to devote the necessary time and money to support a sustainable court-annexed mediation program," Mr. Schachter said.

Mr. Schachter and his colleagues are not the only skeptics in this dance. Officials in host countries have reason to be careful about inviting in an organization with its own ideas and motivations, such as making a profit. "In many cases, they've been used for other agendas," he says.

The rewards are great. When two sides agree to disagree, "it's absolutely magical," Mr. Schachter says. "It is so rewarding to see people put their lives back together and have their lives move forward. ... Our reward is the joy of doing this kind of very good work and see the impact on the lives of these people. ... We train them to fish. We don't fish for them."

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 6,754 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,251 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 2,133 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,538 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,500 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More