Q&A with Richard F. Griffin

Richard Griffin traces his evolution from pit bull to mediator and remembers Malcolm X

Published in 2009 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine

By Seth Woehrle on August 21, 2009


Super Lawyers: What drew you to the law?

Richard F. Griffin: Two lawyers that were in the family, and I was very impressed with their work and their seeming grasp of things that were important. Also, I had done a lot of debating and political work in undergraduate school and high school.  


What would you have done if you hadn’t become a lawyer?

Never thought about it. I didn’t have an alternative.


People have called you Upstate’s “King of Mediation.”

Well, that’s very kind. I am an experienced litigator, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, but in recent years, I’ve concentrated on mediation and arbitration. I was asked by the Buffalo Law School [SUNY] to design and teach a course in mediation and arbitration. That was about the year 2000 and since then I have been very active in the field of private mediation, very active in the federal and state court mediation programs as well as the American Arbitration Association. I do a lot of seminars and writing on the subject as well.


What drew you from trial law to this kind of work?

Well after fighting for 45 to 47 years, I was settling a lot of cases … but a little late in the game. That, plus our federal court, in 1999, had a settlement week and I was invited to be one of the mediators. This was a new project for our federal courts that was very successful. It’s where I got my first training as a mediator. We were required to get a day’s training at the mediation session for the federal court and I said, “I’ve settled hundreds and hundreds of cases, why do I need training?” But I found out how different mediation was, and how the adversary approach and the role of the mediator is much different.


When you first started working in mediation, was it a tough transition or did you enjoy the work immediately?

It was a very satisfying transition because I saw how sitting down with litigants at an appropriate time saved a lot of time, energy and money for the parties and their counsel. I found that I was quite good at it because I not only had the temperament and persistence but, with my background in broad areas of litigation, I understood the issues very well and I could identify and discuss them convincingly with both sides.


We sometimes hear from attorneys who lament that the profession has become more adversarial over the years. What do you think?

There is the change that mediation is used much more throughout the country. Many businesses and other people will advise that they’re using mediation even more than arbitration these days, whereas arbitration is an adversarial proceeding, which—though it does save time and expense in most cases relative to court proceedings—still can be an expensive procedure. Much more expensive than if the parties can get cases settled by mediation. Things have changed in that there are fewer and fewer cases tried in our courts than have been tried 10 to 15 years ago.


What is your most memorable case?

My most famous expert witness was Malcolm X. I tried a case in the federal district court for the black Muslim population of Attica prison who were denied their religious rights. Malcolm X was my expert witness. I visited with him in Harlem and he agreed to come. He was in Buffalo for three days on the witness stand. He even came to my house for dinner because my wife had just given birth to our child the day the trial opened and I wanted her to meet him.


So what was Malcolm X like?

He was outstanding. The judge loved him. He was extremely articulate. The defense of the state was that this was not a religious group. It was a political group. They wanted to get Elijah Muhammad’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks. They wanted to read the Koran but the state said, “That’s all an excuse. This is a political thing.” So they brought in, from Columbia University, a professor of Islamic studies and the gist of his testimony was that, “This is not a recognized Islamic group and blah, blah, blah …”

So as he was testifying, Malcolm was sitting right behind me and he wrote me a little note and it said, “Only true Muslims may make the pilgrimage to Mecca. [Black Muslim leader] Elijah Muhammad has made a pilgrimage and been admitted. Therefore, he and his followers must be recognized Muslims.” I forget the exact words, but it was a very effective syllogism to use in the cross-examination.


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