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Settlement Conferences as a Method of Alternative Dispute Resolution in Washington State

A settlement conference in Washington State can be described as a mini-trial that occurs before the "real" trial. Some states require it while other states do not.

At Law Offices of Paul L. Schneiderman, our attorney in Washington State will provide comprehensive representation during the settlement conference, aiming to settle the case before additional resources must be spent on litigation. Though that is our aim, our goal is an outcome that addresses your interests and protects your rights. Contact us at 206-464-1952 to schedule a Free Consultation where we can discuss your legal matter and determine how best to move forward.

Understanding Settlement Conferences as an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Method

Settlement conferences are a form of ADR utilized by courts and law firms on a regular basis, often with success. 

Settlement conferences may be undertaken and conducted in different ways. In one scenario, the parties may present their respective sides to a neutral third party who facilitates an informal negotiation. This third party is typically a judge but could be, in some jurisdictions, another legal professional. In another scenario, the parties and their representatives gather in a room, typically in the courthouse but not a courtroom, with the judge to present their arguments. The judge then guides the discussions to help move toward a settlement.

Unlike mediation or arbitration, the judge as a neutral third party may advise on applicable legal positions and the likely outcome of the case. In Washington State, many Superior Court judges are willing to preside over settlement conferences.

The judge cannot order a settlement in a settlement conference. Instead, the process is designed to help the parties understand the strengths and weaknesses of their cases, as well as the potential result of a trial. This may lead them to reevaluate their position and reach a mutually agreeable settlement.

If successful, a settlement conference results in the case being dismissed in court. On the other hand, when the parties cannot reach an agreement, the matter proceeds to trial. 

Elements of Settlement Conferences in Washington State

While the specific settlement conference process may vary between states, some general elements apply across the board.

  • The right to trial. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the matter can still proceed to a trial. 
  • Neutrality. If the matter proceeds to trial, it is usually heard by a different judge from the one who oversaw the settlement conference, unless the parties agree otherwise. 
  • Confidentiality. Settlement negotiations and their communications remain private.
  • Attendance. The judge may first meet with the parties and their legal representatives or only the legal representatives. Then the parties meet individually with the judge to facilitate discussions. Anyone who attends a settlement conference — for example, the representative of an insurance company — must have detailed knowledge of the case and the authority to settle it. 
  • Cost. There are some costs involved in a settlement conference. The parties may have to pay a conference fee in addition to their lawyers' fees. However, settlement conferences are usually a more affordable option compared to a trial. 

Appropriate Cases or Circumstances for Settlement Conferences in Washington State

If not required, a settlement conference is often best used when:

  • Procedural law issues are central to the matter
  • The parties want to involve a judicial officer and get an independent legal perspective
  • One (or both) of the parties does not have legal representation

Settlement conferences are especially common in personal injury cases involving plaintiffs and insurance companies. They are also often used in cases involving breaches of contract or family law issues, such as child custody cases or divorce. Like mediation, however, it is important to be mindful of bargaining power or abusive situations. A judge, as mentioned, is a neutral party and is not there to advocate your rights or interests but to hear the facts as laid out and to apply the law to those facts.

Types of Settlement Conferences in Washington State

Settlement conferences may be voluntary or mandatory. 

Voluntary settlement conferences are requested by the parties before the trial commences. 

Alternatively, a judge may order parties to attend a mandatory settlement conference in an attempt to resolve their matter before trial. In some states, the parties may be required to go to a settlement conference by law due to the nature of their dispute. 

Where a settlement conference is mandatory, parties must participate in it in good faith. 

Five Things to Know in Washington State About Settlements

Though the process of settling a dispute via a settlement conference will vary, when an agreement is made, there are some common elements that you can expect and should know.

  1. When a settlement conference is successful, an agreement is typically put in writing and all parties must sign each provision of it. 
  2. The exact contents of a settlement agreement depend on the type of matter and agreement between the parties. Settlement agreements can include details like a monetary settlement and a payment schedule. If the legal matter is related to family law, the agreement can include things like custody arrangements and the distribution of property between former spouses. 
  3. Settlement agreements may require several rounds of amendments. The document is often passed between the parties or their lawyers until both sides agree to its contents. 
  4. Settlement agreements must be enforceable. The specific criteria for an enforceable agreement depend on relevant state law. Generally, they need to be complete, specific, and unambiguous. 
  5. If the parties cannot reach a settlement agreement, the matter proceeds to trial. 

Mistakes to Avoid in a Settlement Conference

Settlement conferences are often one of the last opportunities to resolve a legal matter before it goes to trial. Avoiding common mistakes can improve your chances of succeeding.

Do not be under-prepared.

Good preparation is key to a successful settlement conference. Make sure you fully understand your case and desired outcome, as well as the interests of the other party. When you attend the conference, have all of your documents ready and be prepared for a long day. 

Do not sign an insufficient settlement agreement.

Leaving details out of the settlement agreement may make it unenforceable, leading to further legal disputes, more delays, and additional costs. As your lawyer, we will discuss in advance what provisions should be included in a settlement agreement and bring a list of them to the conference. 

Do not skip the settlement conference.

A judge may require you to attend the settlement conference or conference directly with your lawyer as well as the other parties. Make sure you confirm whether you need to attend, and if you must, do not fail to appear. If you are the claimant or plaintiff, the judge – in many jurisdictions – may issue an order to dismiss the claim. If you are the defendant, the judge may order in favor of the claimant or plaintiff.

Contact a Lawyer in Washington State Today 

Even when you do not think a settlement conference will end with a settlement, in many situations, it is still a worthwhile activity. It will provide an opportunity to learn the weaknesses and strengths of all parties as well as hear the judge's opinion about the case.

At Law Offices of Paul L. Schneiderman, our attorney in Washington State will use a settlement conference to settle the case in your favor. When that is not an option, we use the settlement conference as a critical learning experience to strengthen your case at trial. Contact us by filling out our online form or calling us at 206-464-1952 to schedule a Free Consultation.

Contact Me Today

The Law Offices of Paul L. Schneiderman is committed to answering your questions about Personal Injury & Wrongful Death, No-Fault Car Accidents, Sports Law, Sports Injury, Criminal Defense and Crime Victim Representation law issues in Seattle, Washington.

I offer a free consultation and I'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Call me at 206-464-1952 or email me at [email protected] to schedule an appointment.

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