BY DEBORAH R, ROSENTHALVerdicts & Settlements Staff Writer
Wulff has been cultivating and touting the mediation process almost since its inception. When he talks about mediation it isn't just a job: it's a revolution that has paralleled his own career.
Wulff's dispute-resolution journey began when he earned his juris doctorate in 1974 from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where in 1973 he served on the editorial staff of the Hastings Law Journal. He was also Hastings' first extern to the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, where he learned about traditional dispute resolution firsthand.
Wulff came to law school with a business background; having attended the Netherlands Institute of International Business in 1968-69. He spent much of his 20-plus-year career as a trial lawyer with Farella, Braun & Martel. where he has worked as a fulltime neutral for the past five years.
Wulff first encountered mediation in the early 1980s while working as an advocate in a complex, 30-party construction lawsuit venued in Maui.
Opposing counsel suggested mediation, which was, at the time, an undeveloped creature. Wulff reluctantly agreed, and the case settled expediently "in a manner that satisfied everyone." he says.
From that initiation, says Wulff. "I recognized that if I wanted to be a full service lawyer, it wasn’t enough to be a litigator. You also had to be a good user of the mediation process."
As an advocate, Wulff participated in over 100 mediations, observing many other mediators' work on securities, real estate, insurance coverage, construction defect and general commercial litigation cases.
In the mid-1980s, Wulff worked with a mediator from the American Arbitration Association in what Wulff terms a "marathon negotiation session" that yielded what he characterized a "very large" settlement before the case was even filed in court. According to Wulff, it was the AAA's largest mediated case settlement at that time. Shortly thereafter, the company approached Wulff and invited him to train as a mediator with the organization.
Wulff agreed, joining AAA's mediation panel in the late l 980s, where he mediated two cases each month while he continued his work as a trial lawyer. In 1990, Wulff received AAA's award for Outstanding Mediator in Northern California.
Then, in 1994, Wulff returned from litigating two long trials on the East Coast and decided that it was time for a change. He ceased litigating, amicably parted with AAA and began mediating full time from within Farella, Braun & Martel.
"I went to law school because I wanted to help people, I've never encountered anything where you can reach and help as many people as you can with mediation. I get the opportunity almost daily to make a difference." he says.
Wulff describes mediating as "a lot like being in trial every day. You have to be 'on' every day. For that particular case it is the most important day in the life of that dispute, and you have to rise to the occasion."
But unlike litigation, Wulff sees mediation as an efficient goal-oriented tool. "You can see the results on a daily basis. You become addicted to quick results" says Wulff.
Wulff speaks with conviction about the growth and success or the mediation movement. Formerly a popular speaker and prolific writer on the subject. Wulff has recently cut back on speaking and writing.
"I am satisfied that the message is out there, and because there is just so much mediation work to be done." he explains.
Wulff describes his mediation experience as a "'real cross-section" of civil litigation matters, including construction defect and general commercial matters, environmental issues, intellectual property and trade secret cases, and professional negligence suits.
Although he professes no particular favorite when it comes to legal issues and in fact enjoys the diversity of his civil litigation practice, Wulff finds high-tech work fascinating, mostly because of its global import.
Wulff engages in other alternative dispute-resolution processes in a limited way as well, although he tries to keep this work to a minimum. For example, Wulff says he does "a few arbitrations per year" to remind myself how slow and inefficient the usual processes are"
In addition, Wulff accepts some special mastering work although he prefers not to and tries to "dissuade people from calling with special-mastering appointments where you have to babysit the case for, six months or a year. I like the negotiations. not the ‘tee-up’" says Wulff.
"I am someone to bring in when the parties are ready and serious." he adds.
Wulff has mediated cases with settlements from thousands of dollars to tens of millions: they have ranged from two-party cases to suits involving hundreds of plaintiffs and more than 150 defendants. Wulff estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the cases he mediates settle.
He attributes his success to two factors - his persistence and his ability to understand people.
"The cardinal rule is to never quit, just keep the balls in the air as long as humanly possible." says Wulff.
But dedication alone is not enough. "You really have to adjust to the individual personality. You have to determine really what people have to have, in order to feel satisfied with the settlement. If there’s a secret to it, it's walking a mile in everyone else's shoes." says Wulff.
Perhaps another one of Wulff’s secrets is the respect he hold for members of the legal profession. Says Wulff: "In my current job as mediator, I’ve met thousands of lawyers. The overwhelming majority or lawyers that I deal with are very ethical and conscientious about looking for the earliest opportunity to settle a case if it’s best for their clients."
According to his clients, Wulff has mastered both the rules and the secrets of mediation.
"Litigators appreciate Wulff’s ability to handle different types of personalities in a very persuasive way. I can’t say enough good things about him." says William T. Eliopoulos of San Jose's Bergeson & Eliopoulos.
"I’ve had him mediate 10 cases and all but one have settled – and the one that didn’t settle was unsettleable." adds Eliopoulos.
"I would recommend him for any commercial case. I think he’s an excellent mediator - if not the best, then one of the best in the country, as far as I’ve experienced. He’s aggressive without being abrasive." says Eliopoulos.
Wulff is equally well-known in Southern California. Kenneth Gibbs, senior partner of Gibbs. Giden. Locher & Turner. A 45-attomey firm that represents both plaintiffs and defendants in major construction defect cases, has worked with Wulff as a mediator on at least 20 such cases.
"He is simply the best." says Gibbs. "I think Randy is terrific at reading through smoke screens that parties sometimes put up and, really, with laser-like precision, figuring out what their positions really are and determining whether or not settlement is really possible."
Adds Gibbs, "He has a wonderful working knowledge of the law and a terrific personality."
Gibbs, who is himself a full-time mediator now, describes Wulff as "just a pleasure to do business with. I think he is the best mediator in California, bar none."
Wulff predicts that the field of transactional law will experience the next big groundsweII in mediation. "I don’t frequently see mediation clauses in transactional documents." he says" "I think they think 'What's the value if it's voluntary?' But I know there's value."
In fact, Wulff surmises that the potential for mediation to work in disputes covered by a written agreement requiring mediation may be even greater than its potential to work in litigated disputes, because litigation attorneys are often hesitant to suggest mediation for fear that such a proposal might be perceived as a weakness.
"If it’s written in, everyone can go and still save face." explains Wulff, "and the settlement rate of those who 'have to go' is the same. There's virtually no downside."
Wulff also finds "particularly intriguing" the possibility of using mediation "in a political arena, where you really might be able to contribute value on a much grander scale in areas of conflict." Says Wulff, "What could be more worthwhile?"
Wulff may have achieved career success and a reputation in Southern California as well, but his heart belongs to the Bay Area" Born in Oakland and raised in Stockton, Wulff married his high school sweetheart and now has two sons. He enjoys travel" and is planning trips to Egypt, Israel and Italy and a photo safari in East Africa.
In addition, says Wulff, "My wife and I are now farmers." Wulff and his wife recently purchased a small home in Napa County.
"I’m eager to see if it's fun and maybe make a little wine." Wulff said.