During 17 years of work as a litigator, attorney Jim Exum has tackled complex, high-stakes cases as a member of the litigation and risk management group at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel.
His clients – which range from individuals and families to government and municipal officers – have sought his counsel in Tennessee and Georgia.
Exum is now expanding his practice to include mediation. As a Rule 31 mediator, he’ll work with both parties in a dispute to identify common issues and develop possible solutions.
Here, Exum discusses his motivations for adding mediation to his toolset, what he hopes to accomplish for clients and his ability to transition from advocate to neutral participant.
Provide a primer on your practice and how it developed over the years.
“I’ve been practicing for almost 17 years. I originally did insurance defense work at another firm. Four years ago, I came to Chambliss to expand my practice. I now do a lot of family law and Section 1983 civil rights work on behalf of law enforcement.”
How extensively have you been involved in mediations?
“I’ve been a part of more mediations than I can count. One thing that sparked my interest in obtaining my Rule 31 listing was the fact that people – not the courts – are often in the best position to decide what’s best for them.
“If they can figure out a solution they can live with, that’s far better than spending money and time going through the courts – unless you absolutely have to.”
You say that as a litigator who’s likely spent a lot of time in court.
“Absolutely. I’ve taken a number of cases through to their final disposition. The one thing I tell people – especially in the domestic realm – is that if you go to court, I can only guarantee you that everyone is going to be unhappy when it’s over.”
That’s a quite a caveat.
“I try to be as real with clients as I possibly can be. The one thing people don’t take into account when they proceed down some form of litigation is the time that’s going to be involved. A lot of that time is sometimes just waiting. It’s going to occupy their thoughts for months and perhaps even years.
“If there’s a way to mediate the case and resolve it early on, then they can save the time and money that comes with litigating a case.”
Have your clients generally been open to mediation?
“Most people are open to it. When they get there, they might be a little bit more closed off as the day progresses and they’re not liking what they’re hearing, but most of the mediations I’ve been a part of as an attorney resolved. Cooler heads usually prevail.”
In your opinion, who makes an effective mediator?
“I’ve sat at the table with a lot of great mediators who did a fantastic job of drawing the parties to the middle.
“The mediators I always turn to when I have a difficult case to resolve are the ones who were courtroom advocates – trial attorneys who had experiences with our courts and who can bring that perspective to the table – because they tend to want to hear different perspectives and have no qualms about telling the parties what they’re in for if they go to court.”
How did you prepare to step into the role of mediator?
“I’ve been working toward it through my own practice. After being a litigator for a while, I started to think certain cases could be settled before going to court and saw mediation as a good tool to resolve them.
“So, I’m throwing my hat into the ring. I hope I can help out with cases here in town or even cases out of town where the parties need a mediator with a lot of experience in court. I hope to be able to help people resolve some of those matters.”
What made you want to be a litigator when you started practicing law?
“That probably had a lot to do with the fact that I look at most cases as being right or wrong – and that’s where you start. But when you get into a case, you sometimes realize, ‘There’s probably a little bit of right on both sides and there’s probably a little bit of wrong on both sides.’
“To me, it was always about getting the best result for my client. One thing I always tell my clients up front is, ‘You’re always going to know what I think and I’m always going to level with you. I’m not going to string you along. I’m not going to tell you to keep fighting when I don’t think there’s a good result for you at the end of the process. If we need to resolve something early, let’s resolve it early.’
“Being an advocate for someone is a huge responsibility because that person has trusted you with their case. I’ll be super aggressive in a courtroom, but I’ll also be civil, and I’m not going to hide the ball from other people. I believe my fellow attorneys will tell you I always shoot straight.”
You’ll now be the neutral party in settling disputes. Will you be able to adjust to that role?
“As with anything else, I intend to be as well acquainted with a case as I possibly can be. There are mediators who go to the court and look at the file because they want to be well versed in the matter. I anticipate being no different because I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
“I don’t want to enter a mediation and learn about the case for the first time. I’ll want to know everything I can before I sit down and start talking with people because I’ll want them to feel like they’re using their time and money well.”
Will shifting to that neutral role will be challenging for you?
“I think it’ll be fairly easy to slip into. Over time, I’ve become more objective when a new case lands on my desk. I ask the hard questions, try to figure out what the case is really about and find out the things I need to know so I can give an accurate assessment.
“To me, being a mediator is not very different from that. It’s challenging people on the merits of their case to show them where they’re strong, hopefully see where they’re weak and then seeing if we can bridge the divide.”
How open was Chambliss to this addition to your practice?
“The firm has been very encouraging and gave me the latitude I needed to take time off to earn the certification.”
Mediations cost less than litigation. How does Chambliss feel about that?
“My mediation practice will probably make the firm money. But I’m hoping the people that come in to mediate will save money because they won’t be going through the litigation process and will hopefully resolve their matters earlier.”
So, you see mediation as an addition to your practice that will bring in more business?
“I hope so.”
How do you plan to start?
“In mediation, you have to get a few clients in the door to show what kind job you can do. I’m hoping people will give me the opportunity to show them I’m every bit as good a mediator as I am a litigator and that they can trust me with their case.”
Contact Jim Exum at 423 757-0233 or email@example.com.