Roads to Resolution

Victor Schachter on launching mediation centers in emerging democracies around the world

Published in 2014 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2014

Fifty years ago, Victor Schachter stood in the center of a dry, dusty village outside Bangalore, India, dressing wounds, applying ointment and dispensing medication to a dozen or so people waiting in line every morning.

Today, as president of the Foundation for Sustainable Rule of Law Initiatives (FSRI), he offers a different kind of assistance. Schachter launched FSRI in 2012 to help create mediation centers in emerging democracies, including India, where cases now settle at the extraordinary rate of 60 to 65 percent.

Back in 1964, the summer before law school, Schachter won a scholarship to visit India along with a group of students and faculty. For the young men in the group, their primary job was to go out into the granite rock fields, load cut stone blocks onto tractors, bring them back to the village and then lay them into aqueducts to divert typhoid-infested water away from the inhabitants.

“It was a combination of rudimentary medical aid and very hard physical labor,” recalls Schachter, 71, who co-chairs the employment practices group at Fenwick & West in Mountain View. “It was a labor of love.

“I saw poverty on a level that was unparalleled to anyone that had been raised in the United States. The need for addressing the human as well as property rights of individuals in these villages, in these cities, remained with me for a lifetime.”

Fast-forward to 2002 when he became involved with a volunteer program that brought attorneys to emerging nations to help set up mediation centers. A decade later, that program was no longer operational, but Schachter’s commitment to this work prompted him to launch FSRI.

He saw mediation as the best way to help those with little access to timely justice through courts, which in India could be backlogged for up to 20 years.

“These are people who otherwise, in many cases, do not have the kind of wealth or power to get their cases heard. [Mediation] provided a vehicle to do it in a very timely and effective way,” he says. “What I found is that judges, professionals, litigators and court administrators really embrace the idea of some more efficient process to resolve these disputes.

“These [ranged from] women who were being abused in marriages or being thrown back into their communities and rejected because of divorce, to workers that weren't getting what they were entitled to, to businesses that were seeing their trade secrets and their valuable, confidential information being ripped off all over the place. All of these [issues] were affecting people's lives in a very real human, as well as a property and legal-rights way.”

But just as important as designing a great program, Schachter says, is running it in a way that respects the rights and dignity of the local stakeholders, whose buy-in is crucial.

In 2005, he went to India as project director for a pre-existing volunteer group to create a mediation center in a Delhi courthouse that housed 200 judges. Problems soon sprung up. Dozens of biting—and sometimes infectious—monkeys ran rampant inside the courthouse, threatening the hundreds of litigants who passed through each day. Then the local bar attorneys went on a six-month strike against the new center, fearing it would take away their litigation practice.

Since then, Schachter has insisted on doing things differently: “We now invite the bar associations and the leaders in the bar, as well as the judiciary and the leaders in the judiciary, and of course the litigants themselves, to participate in the process of establishing the center and its procedures.

“There are many other programs [that] go and they have kind of a cookie-cutter view of the way it should be, and they try to impose their system, which doesn't necessarily fit to the culture. More importantly, after they leave, it falls apart because it’s not really embraced.”

Once a mediation center is up and running, the goal is to leave it in the hands of the host country—hence the word “sustainable” in the foundation’s name—with occasional visits from U.S. attorney volunteers to provide advanced training, coaching and fine-tuning in administering the program.

Now more than 25 mediation centers exist in India, as well as in Malaysia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo, and more than 150,000 cases have been processed around the world so far. Schachter, who puts about 1,000 hours a year into the program, travels to many of the centers, but is mostly involved in India and the Balkans.

“The satisfaction that I get now, after 47 years of litigating, in bringing parties together where their personal and human rights are so directly affected,” he says, “is a satisfaction which is every bit as high as it is to win a litigation. Because it's a win-win for all sides.”

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