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Rebecca Callahan’s Years of Service, Leadership and Legal Expertise Helps Parties to Reach Private Resolutions through Mediation and Arbitration

When someone comes to me and says they are resigned about going to trial and have no hope that the case can settle, I am reminded that statistics say otherwise,” says Rebecca Callahan who has spent more than 30 years as an attorney, and is now focusing her practice on alternative dispute resolution.
Callahan isn’t being snarky in the slightest. On the contrary, it is her knack for bringing order to chaos that has made her a highly regarded mediator and arbitrator.
On the subject of why mediation has recently become so popular, Callahan had this to say: “There are roughly 2 million civil actions filed each year in California courts, of which only about 250,000 are “unlimited” jurisdiction cases. Of those, less than 5% are resolved by trial. That means somewhere along the line they are abandoned, closed via a dispositive motion or resolved by settlement. Most – over 70% - are resolved by settlement. Attorneys have come to appreciate that mediation can be used to facilitate settlement earlier on in the  process.”

Callahan has always looked for ways to improve and expand her skills as an attorney and that is what led her to the field of ADR. “I entered ADR completely by accident. In my prior life, I was a Chapter 11 reorganization attorney and tended to handle cases where confirmation was contested or confirmation of a plan depended on the outcome of litigation pending in the state or federal court. In the mid-1990’s, I was one of the more senior bankruptcy attorneys in Orange County. So, when the Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California established its court-annexed mediation program, one of the judges insisted that I ‘go get trained’ so that I could be on the panel. The training I received opened up a whole new world of practice skills to me!”
Similarly, Callahan’s introduction to arbitration was a byproduct of taking professional skills programs at Straus. “At a summer program in 2004, I learned that Pepperdine had an LL.M. program in alternative dispute resolution and decided to enroll. It was through those studies that I was introduced to arbitration. I had mediated hundreds of cases and had taken a dozen advanced mediation courses, so the focus of my LL.M. studies and thesis was on arbitration. Shortly after completing my studies in 2007, I was invited to join the AAA arbitration panel, and have been arbitrating cases ever since.”

Callahan has served on numerous community and professional boards and has chaired several projects and committees. She is currently serving as a Director of the OCBA, is the Past Chair of the ADR Section of the OCBA, and is a Past President of the Peter M. Elliott Inn of Court. Callahan’s affinity for leadership translates perfectly into her work as an ADR neutral. She likens her role to that of a ship captain. “I’m there from beginning to end. I make sure we leave the port on time and arrive at our destination. In mediation, it’s the parties’ process, so it’s up to them whether we head due north, or take a while to get there,” she chuckles. “In arbitration, I set the course and it’s my job to keep the case on track and moving forward to a final decision.”

True leaders know that humility is the secret to effective leadership, and Callahan recognizes that’s especially true in ADR. “Arbitration and mediation are processes which are intended to be party-driven. Many times parties don’t understand the full extent of the power they have over defining their process. In ADR, there is a certain element of shared leadership. Out of respect for the others who are at the table, my approach is to nudge rather than bludgeon.”
Leading parties through a dispute requires an unflinching willingness to speak directly about money – a subject many people have trouble talking about. In this area, Callahan is quite comfortable. In addition, co-owning a manufacturing business with her family, Callahan spent over 20 years working with creditors and debtors negotiating money matters. “I have a solid understanding about money and finance. Whether it’s a large or small dollar case at the table, the perspective is still the same. Money is important to people – to their personal lives, their businesses, their families and their plans for the future. Money matters simply have to be considered and talked about to get the job done,” she says.

Callahan writes perspective pieces on mediation and distributes them in advance of the mediation to help educate the parties about the process. “I work with a graphic artist who designs an image and then I write a few short paragraphs on some bite-sized nugget about mediation. For example, one image is the tail end of an elephant, the tag line is ‘elephant in the room’ and the perspective talks about the real issue that no one is talking about. The message is that mediation is a private place where difficult issues can be put on the table and talked about.” Callahan’s next project is to creates a series of one-page articles that discuss “tips” on advocacy in mediation and arbitration, which she will then share with parties and their counsel as part of her scheduling process.

Callahan is a big fan of visual aids and frequently creates a visual aid to help kick-start the mediation. From pie charts and graphs to Excel spreadsheets and diagrams, Callahan routinely uses visual aids to help the parties “gain a broader understanding of the problem, develop frameworks within which to talk about settlement and to compare settlement options, as well as alternatives to settlement.”
15When the mediation ends with a settlement, Callahan stays at the table to help write up the deal. “If needed, I will provide the parties with a template that has common boilerplate and blanks to fill in. After working hard to achieve a negotiated resolution, I want everyone to leave the mediation confident that the dispute has been put to rest,” Callahan says.
For Callahan, much of her success is simply the result of years of experience. “Mediation is an acquired skill. If you ask any judge or attorney, I think they will agree that they did a better job on their 100th trial than on their first; that they were better in year 5 than they were in year 1. The same can be said of mediation.”
If it sounds like Callahan has her ADR practice down to a science, it’s because she does. “Given that most mediations start with the parties who are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how they view the dispute, the real challenge in mediation is to get the parties talking in a constructive manner. I’ve been told by people who have worked with me that I have a ‘common touch’ in that I can talk as easily to a Fortune 500 CEO as an hourly wage employee. My formula is simple. Start the mediation with a heavy dose of listening. I can’t listen very well if I’m the one doing the talking,” she jokes.

She’s equally pragmatic about the future of her ADR practice. “I really like what I do. I have never tired of the law and have always been fascinated by the process through which disputes are resolved. My expectation is that my neutral practice will grow the same way as my law practice: namely, by referral!” While Callahan maintains a few longtime clients, the primary focus of her practice is serving as a neutral or working as a consultant with parties who are preparing for mediation or arbitration.

Rebecca Callahan
5120 Campus Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

Karen Gorden

Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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About the Author: Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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