Bill Baten had a little dream. It wasn’t the kind of dream that nagged at him, occupied his every thought, got in the way of his career. It was just a wistful idea, one he’d had since he was a kid.
He pictured himself behind the wheel of a racecar, tearing through an S-curve on a racetrack. He imagined himself as Bill Baten, racecar driver, waving to the crowd from the winner’s circle. It was a nice thought, but it was just a pipe dream until the day a young Baten, then a litigator for Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in Washington, D.C., discovered mediation.
He was working on a large product liability matter for a Japanese client. This client, unlike many others Baten had worked with, decided “that they’d much rather settle [their] cases than expose themselves to the U.S. legal system,” he says.
Seeing the quick resolution that followed, Baten decided to mediate other cases. “The first mediation I did was a case I had been trying to settle for a year and a half,” he recalls. “In eight hours it got settled.”
A light went off in Baten’s head: “This stuff really works!” He went on to participate in approximately 150 mediations and arbitrations while at Cleary Gottlieb and found that his enthusiasm never waned.
Baten’s eureka moment left him, at age 33, at a crossroads. He wanted to explore mediation as a career. “I felt good about myself as someone who preferred settlement over trying cases,” he says.
It seemed a good fit. There are personality traits common to both mediators and racers; a coolness under fire, for example, and great patience; the tenacity to carry on under pressure and against long odds, to always be looking for a way to solve problems. “One of the major compliments I get from mediation participants,” says Baten, “is that they appreciate the fact that I don’t give up and continually try to approach the problem from different angles.”
Both racers and mediators also need to be prepared. By 1994, Baten was convinced that he wanted to become a full-time mediator, so he began doing careful research. He took a two-month sabbatical and traveled the country, meeting with successful mediators to learn as much as he could about the job. “I spent two or three days with each mediator. I’d observe them during the day, and then take them out for dinner or for a beer and talk about how they got started, the process, the climate in their particular state for mediation,” he recalls.
The journey led him to Indiana. At the end of his sabbatical, Baten and his wife Valerie (who is interested in––surprise––restoring old cars) moved to the Hoosier State, where he started a twoman office for the largest national mediation group at the time––JAMS Dispute. In 1999, Baten left the company and helped form Van Winkle Baten Rimstidt Dispute Resolution.
“I love my job,” says Baten. “Each day is something new, a new set of facts, a new set of parties, new areas of law.” And, he says, he is not pigeonholed by a specific area of expertise. “I get to be a generalist, which is hard for lawyers these days.”
Meanwhile, as Baten built his practice, he found himself living in the American breadbasket of auto racing. He did not yet have the time to commit to getting behind the wheel, so he did what came naturally: he began to research and prepare, learning as much as he could about sports car racing.
He volunteered as a corner worker, enthusiastically waving colored flags that caution drivers about the changing conditions of the track. In this manner he put himself on the track, where he could learn about Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing. In 1997, his practice up and running, he finally had time to seriously pursue his boyhood dream.
“It really is linked to the mediation career,” he says, “because if you’re at the mercy of judges and courts and clients, this and that, it’s hard to block out time to get a racing career underway.”
To finance this new hobby, Baten parted with his prized 1966 Big Block Corvette convertible, purchased as a gift to himself upon graduating from Georgetown Law in 1987. With the proceeds, he bought a Camaro, a trailer, a tow vehicle and spare parts. And then, sans any formal training or warm-up races in lesser cars, he slid into his Camaro, fired up the motor and, with Valerie serving as his first pit crew chief, roared out onto he track.
Bill Baten, it turns out, is a natural race car driver. At age 37, he was named “Rookie of the Year.” The tenacity and creativity that have fueled his mediation career come in handy when weaving in and out of traffic, choosing new lines through turns and doggedly staying with the pack when he finds himself lagging behind the leaders.
He is “by nature, very competitive.” He has a need for speed. “[Racing] is where I let my competitive juices flow,” he says. “You really can’t do that in mediation, when you’re trying to help both sides.”
In describing his passion, Baten quotes fellow speedster Paul Newman, who continues to race into his 80s. “Newman [once said] that he was never good at any sport, but that auto racing was the first thing he’d actually been good at doing from the start,” he says. Then he adds, “At a late age, it was so great to be doing something that came to me naturally.
“I love the whole scene,” Baten continues. “Ever since I was a kid. I’d watch races on TV, I’d have slot cars, anything having to do with racing.”
Racing, of course, is not without its risks. By now, Baten has totaled his share of Camaros. He recounts his first crash, which came in his second season of racing. “I was at Road America, and lost my brakes at about 100 miles per hour heading into a sharp turn.” Despite ending up with a leg full of broken glass, “I was anxious to get back on it,” he says. “There’s never been a time when I didn’t want to get back in the car after a wreck.”
Baten’s persistence has paid off. In 2005, he won the prestigious SCCA June Sprints, as racing legend Carroll Shelby, who won the race in 1955, looked on.
“That was a big deal,” Baten says. But he’s left that accomplishment in the dust, winning six straight races in 2006 before claiming the SCCA T2 division championship.
Baten dominated the division, but humbly points out that it’s a long way from racing’s big leagues. SCCA drivers have few sponsors, so they generally pay their own way. Since the end of the racing season, Baten has been exploring relationships with new sponsors and new racing series.
“One of the things I’m looking into is to see if I can get into the Grand Am series, the American Le Mans series,” he says. His ultimate dream is to score a ride with the General Motors factory team, racing Corvettes at Le Mans. “That would be nirvana,” he says.
If this were to happen, of course, Indiana might lose one of its top mediators. “It would be a hard choice,” admits Baten. “But the way I think about it is that I’d be able to carve out some time for my mediation practice.” Careful not to get too far ahead of himself, he dryly adds, “It’s something I haven’t had to come to grips with yet.”
Between work, racing and the recent birth of twins, his time is filling up faster than the stands at the Brickyard in May. But for now, at least, Bill Baten has no plans to slow down.