Musings of a Mediator Gone Global

I boarded the international flight in Newark, NJ. Twenty-two hours later, I looked out the plane’s window as it headed down a wide open plain, surrounded on either side by mountains almost as beautiful as the Alps. Ahead, lay Sofia, Bulgaria. I pondered in those moments how I had arrived here.

Only a few months before, like many Americans who try to stay involved in the political system, I had become quite frustrated. Although my mediation practice was going well, I could see no way to make a meaningful personal contribution back to society. Making political contributions, attending dinners with identical menus, listening to hackneyed speeches, just didn’t seem satisfy me. I wanted something more. I wanted to make even the smallest difference.

So, I began a search on the internet, seeking options that could use my experience and skills.. As a long time member of the American Bar Association, I discovered its ABA/CEELI program. CEELI is a public service project of the American Bar Association designed to advance the rule of law by supporting the legal reform process in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union. Through its work, CEELI helps build the legal infrastructure that is indispensable to strong, self-supporting, democratic, free market systems. One component of building a strong free market system, as espoused especially by the European Union, is alternative dispute resolution programs.

Walking to work in downtown Sofia on my first day as a Mediation Specialist, was, in itself, quite interesting. The city of Sofia, unlike most of the beautiful Bulgarian countryside, is not an immediately appealing sight. My new boss, Mark Lassman, Country Director of ABA/CEELI (Central and Eastern Europe Law Initiative) in Bulgaria, walking with me, suggested I watch my feet as I walked. Sofia has many stray city dogs that apparently covet otherwise unadorned areas of the sidewalks. So do cars. They are parked on almost all of the sidewalks, making navigation circuitous. In Sofia, there is no pedestrian right of way. Therefore, one carefully must look up from the sidewalks to avoid cars when crossing streets. The office building was vintage communist-era construction and the old WWII single-person (at most 2-person) elevator was loud and wobbly. Riding it was a daunting experience, but better than walking up five flights of stairs in dim stairwell.

I had part of a large office with a vintage Dell computer, and lots of windows. The computer worked slowly but fine, and a few strategically placed flowers brightened the sparsely-furnished space.

Within moments of my arrival, I met Biliana, a young Bulgarian attorney in charge of mediation matters. Over the course of the next few months, my respect and admiration for this woman grew daily. Attractive, bright and articulate, she is passionately committed to mediation in Bulgaria. Almost single-handedly, she led the cause that resulted in the Bulgarian Parliament’s enactment of a national Mediation Act, one of the most comprehensive and first of its kind in Europe. Her practiced practicality and patience enabled a large and disparate group of Bulgarian professionals to ultimately promulgate ethical and procedural rules of conduct, educational standards and rules for registration (certification). All of these the Minister of Justice approved. Having this national Mediation Act, and the comprehensive rules and regulations supporting it, establishes a unique dispute resolution system for Bulgaria when it joins the European Union in 2007.

Literally within a few hours of meeting Biliana, members of the Minster of Justice’s appointed Working Group began arriving at the office. They were arriving to go over their plans for a five-day trip to Netherlands where they would study the Dutch mediation system. I was introduced by Biliana. I must not have mangled my greeting, “dobro utro” (Bulgarian for “good morning”) too badly; I was met with responsive warm smiles and nods of appreciation. I thought to myself that these successful and highly-regarded attorneys, university professors and businessmen and women certainly had one thing in common, a natural warmth and likeability. I was later to understand that these traits are common to most of the Bulgarians, certainly to those I met.

The members of this national Working Group (“WG”) are a varied prestigious professional group, hand-picked by the Minister of Justice to assist in promulgating educational, ethical and procedural rules. Working for about 12 months prior to my arrival, the WG had prepared working drafts for ethical and procedural rules, educational requirements and rules governing the Uniform Register (the Bulgarian certification process). During those next few days when most of the WG traveled to Holland, I read everything I could about the history and current mediation laws, both in Europe and Bulgaria.

As assigned, I then began reviewing background documents in order to prepare comments on the WG’s mediation working drafts. Unlike certain courts in the United States, the Bulgarian Mediation Act requires that mediation is voluntary. Therefore, the current model of mediation in Bulgarian provides that in district and regional courts that have agreed to refer mediation, the judge, in the first hearing on a case, neutrally explains to the parties what mediation is and how the parties can use it if they choose. Once the parties have settled, they appear back before the judge to explain and formally agree to the settlement. In this context, the challenge was to determine which American mediation concepts worked best. I attempted to integrate ethical, procedural, educational, certification and enforcement concepts premised upon American mediation jurisprudence into a Bulgarian judicial system, which is not a common-law system.

Over the course of the several weeks reviewing my comments, various members of the WG could get rather unruly at times. I observed heated debates over what seemed like inane details. I pondered the passion these people articulated in paving the logistical way for mediation in their country. I wondered if I had recently seen such passion about mediation in our country. It had been a while. Certainly, as an initial member of the first Dispute Resolution Board in the early 1990s, we intensely debated our new rules and regulations. But I was hard-pressed to recall the degree of passion WG members routinely expressed in their meetings.

Over the course of about two months, the WG, led by the ever-patient Biliana, and I worked to complete the final drafts. Despite some disappointments in the government’s reluctance to provide enforcement regulations, the rules are strong, well-developed and conceptually akin to many rules used in the United States and other progressive members of the European Union. In late June 2005, the Minister of Justice approved the WG’s submission of formal Ethical and Procedural Rules, Educational Requirements, and the Uniform Register provisions. You can find Bulgarian Mediation Act and all of its rules and regulations on my web-site, the Balkan Page, at

Each time I worked with members of the WG, I had the satisfaction of knowing that others had listened, often integrating my ideas, sometime not. I could take no ownership of the result. However, I keenly appreciated that the process was a productive one and that my suggestions were analyzed and synthesized by the WG. But the sense of being a part of designing something important to a society didn’t end there.

I also was tasked with assisting in opening new mediation centers and conducting advanced mediation training. If Biliana is the activist architect of mediation, Zoya is the wise builder. Zoya is a warm woman, having obtained her law degree during the communist era. She has eyes that always smile and she is a natural-born mediator. Zoya says she has “found her calling” and her passion shows each time she speaks to others about anything involved in mediation. Zoya and her judicial colleague, Stanislav, are responsible for forming the BAARD (Bulgarian Association for Alternative Resolution Dispute) Center, the first mediation center in Bulgaria located in Plovdiv. A few hours from Sofia, Plovdiv is a dynamic city humming with entrepreneurial activities. It is the proud site of two preserved Roman amphitheatres.

Biliana and Zoya and I traveled to various offices of chief judges, encouraging court-related mediation. We found many regional and district court judges very receptive. For those otherwise indifferent (and in a few cases, hostile) judges, Biliana’s and Zoya’s enthusiasm for mediation was contagious. I observed Zoya’s mediation skills literally transform the opinion of one recalcitrant judge from doubt and dislike into outright enthusiastic acceptance.

I predict that mediation in Bulgaria will be highly successful in a beautiful country where sadly there is still much poverty and incomes are low, despite hard work. For many decades, the Bulgarian people lived under a system that actively stifled individual motivations and thwarted creative ideas. Mediation, because of the dynamics inherent in the process, will work to transform this country into a thriving democracy in the European Union. During communism, mediation was much distrusted as a process: the communist party member met with the disputants and simply told them what to do. It was as simple as that. As Zoya describes her mediations, something much more dynamic is happening to individuals in an ever-increasing number of successful mediations. I agree. For the first time in their lives, Bulgarians are learning and embracing the fact that they have personal control over resolving a dispute. They make a personal decision affecting their lives, not someone else. Once they learn they have this control, they begin to listen to the other side and determine options that might work if the other side will agree. A give and take develops. In learning to listen and articulate options, inherent to the process is taking responsibility for one’s actions. Taking personal responsibility for one’s acts is empowering. Zoya reports this process happening repeatedly; some of the same people are returning to mediation a second time or more. Enough of these individuals help change, over time, the attitude, tenor, and communication abilities of a community. Thus, the community’s strength increases. When enough communities embrace these dynamics, a nation is empowered. I see this in Bulgaria’s future.

It sounded great for volunteer work and I applied. I was asked to DC for an interview in early December 2005. At this stage in my career, I couldn’t leave my dispute resolution practice for a long period of time. So, I didn’t expect them to assign me a position, given that they were seeking volunteers for a long-term period, one year.

In March 2005, I had planned my trip to Vienna to be an arbitrator in the Willem Vis Arbitration Moot, attended by over 120 law schools world-wide. Afterwards, we had planned to travel to Spain to visit my son, Gage, who lives on the Spanish Costa del Sol. Those plans quickly changed when I got a call offering me a position in Bulgaria as a mediation/legal specialist for three months, starting in mid April. I immediately accepted.

CEELI’s office in Bulgaria is the first one created in 1991. Bulgaria is CEELI’s poster child. As part of a broad portfolio designed to assist Bulgaria in enhancing its rule of law, USAID funds the Attorney’s Professional Development Initiative (APDI) through its implementer the American Bar Association Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI). APDI supports developments in the legal profession in Bulgaria in three general categories: bar development, mediation and clinical education. CEELI Bulgaria has succeeded in all of these categories. As a result, in 2007, Bulgaria is slated to enter the European Union.

I was coming to Bulgaria to assist in the development of mediation. And now I was about to land in a city, which, by many accounts, still raggedly wore the recent cultural and political remnants of communism. I wondered how the transition from communism had affected not only the political landscape but also the psyche of the Bulgarian people. After all, in 1989, after the Berlin wall fell, the communists simply pulled out en masse, leaving the country to struggle economically, forcing Bulgarians into long bread lines.

I arrived on a Saturday and was picked up by a person from the office, Rado, and a driver of a van. Together, they struggled to get my four heavy suitcases up four flights of stairs to my apartment. Still bleary eyed from jet lag, Monday morning I met the Mark Lassman, the Director of the office, outside my apartment building that faced a park and Sofia’s huge, monolithic, cultural complex built by the communists. Mark and I began what was to become my daily walk through Sofia to the ABA/CEELI office. I liked him immediately. As I was to learn, his most endearing quality was to give the Bulgarian staff the rewards and recognition for successes of the office. Americans would leave in 2007 when Bulgaria joined the European Union. As he explained, and I agreed, it was critical to building lasting achievements that the Bulgarian staff attorneys take leadership roles so that they could refine and continue the rule of law long after we had gone.

This philosophy was to govern my varied and extensive experiences in Bulgarian mediation, the first of which began the day I arrived at the office. The Bulgarian people and their commitment to mediation broadened my view of life and enriched me in ways I could never have envisioned.