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Strength in Specialization

When It Comes To Resolving Disputes: Specialization Reigns Supreme for Subject Matter Mediation Services, Inc.

One look at the Subject Matter Mediation Services (SMMS) website will clear up any ambiguity about what differentiates the newly formed mediation panel from other mediation services companies in San Diego. The company’s founders, Doug Sohn, President, and Cheri Sohn, DOUGCHERIVice President and General Manager, don’t pull any punches when it comes to conveying the single biggest strength of their mediation panel company. “Because our mediators already know the law, they get right down to the business of resolving your case, saving you time and money,” reads the homepage. Speaking with Doug and Cheri confirms that this declaration is not just for show.

Founded in December 2012, with offices in La Jolla, “The SMMS panel is centered on the concept of subject matter expertise, which emphasizes the type of case in which a party is involved and ensures that they will be provided with a mediator who has expertise in that particular subject matter,” Doug Sohn explains. To that end, when Sohn and his wife Cheri first conceived of the panel, they realized that this focus would be the linchpin in differentiating their mediation company from others.

“After 35 years in litigation practice, I wanted to become involved in a process that was less adversarial, and more focused on meeting the needs of all of the participants,” Doug says. With the help of his wife Cheri, who has served as the Office Manager of The Law Offices of Sohn & Associates for more than ten years, the two became convinced that with the highly competitive mediation market, it would be imperative that they carve a niche for their company, or risk lackluster success.

“We started doing research on mediation companies. We found that most panels focus on the process of mediation,” Sohn says. In fact, he found that when he tried to find mediators who had expertise in specific areas of law or subject matter, it proved a challenge. “Focusing on the process of mediation is a legitimate approach,” Sohn says. But he realized that focusing on subject matter expertise was an equally valuable, yet largely untapped model.


Handpicked Professionals

To that end, Sohn decided that he would seek out those with expertise in 9 specific areas of law: Business Litigation, Probate Litigation, Employment Law, Real Estate Law, Antitrust & Securities Law, Injury Law, Lemon Law & Other Auto, Commercial Litigation and Construction Law. Sohn admits to spending a great deal of time scouring attorney biographies to find those with the specific expertise in the designated fields, and more importantly, who had at least 10 years of litigation experience in those areas of law.

“I looked through an awful lot of bios to find the candidates,” Sohn says. However, it was worth the effort. Following informal meetings over coffee with his future colleagues, Sohn had compiled a panel of mediators who had many years of experience in litigation, and who recognized that the opportunity to offer their services as specialists in particular areas of law was a chance they couldn’t pass up. In time, Sohn succeeded in compiling a team of 6 additional attorneys who collectively had hundreds of years of experience in litigation. In addition to himself, the panel included Elisabeth Epel, Kevin Forrester, Marc Geffen, Jim Greer, Allen Gruber and Steve Oggel.

Specialization in Subject Matter

In addition to Sohn, whose expertise as a mediator lies in injury cases (personal, premises liability, product liability), and Lemon Law and auto law, Sohn sought out Elisabeth Epel, who specializes in employment law cases and commercial cases. ELISABETHEpel, who holds Masters Degrees from Harvard University, and from Pepperdine University in addition to her J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School, first became a mediator in Florida in 2000, before becoming a mediator in California in 2003.

When approached to join the SMMS panel as a mediator, Epel was eager to be part of the team.

“When people need to have a commercial dispute resolved, it is beneficial to work with a mediator who has practiced in that field and understands the complications of litigation. I am deeply committed to the process of mediation, the people involved, and the ultimate resolution of the dispute,” she says.

KEVINLikewise, Kevin Forrester was intrigued by the concept of using his expertise as a mediator in his specialized field. In his case, working as a mediator in real estate law is nothing if not a perfect fit. Forrester, who has not only 25 years civil litigation experience as a trial lawyer, arbitrator, and mediator of litigated and pre-litigation civil, real estate and real property disputes; he’s also spent more than 30 years as a licensed REALTOR® and real estate broker. In fact, Forrester has served as the President of the North San Diego County Association of REALTORS®, and as a 10 year director of the California Association of REALTORS®, one of the nation’s largest state trade associations.

Not surprisingly, the decision to join forces with Sohn and others at SMMS was an easy one for Forrester. “SMMS seemed like it would be a good fit, both for me and for parties with real estate disputes,” said Forrester. “SMMS provides the opportunity for people already in the same field to get together in the same room and solve problems,” he adds.

MARCFor Marc Geffen, joining the SMMS team fit with his overall philosophy of successful dispute resolution. “Francis Bacon wrote that the greatest trust between people is the trust of giving counsel. While good mediators are skilled at identifying and overcoming the particular obstacles to settlement in a given case, exceptional mediators also possess the credibility of their counsel. Often, that comes in the form of the mediator’s subject area expertise,” says Geffen, who serves as one of the panel’s expert mediators in the fields of business litigation and probate laws. With more than 20 years of experience in litigating probate matters in addition to all types of business litigation including Contract Negotiations / Contract Preparation, Contract Disputes & Commercial Litigation, Business Entity Formation and Governance, Construction Law and Litigation, Trade Secrets Protection and Enforcement, Unfair Business Practices / Unfair Competition, Professional Licensing & Disciplinary Matter, Corporate Control Contest, Commercial Debt Collection / Creditors’ Rights, Fraud and Misrepresentation, Geffen is trained in both evaluative and facilitative methods of mediation.

JIMJim Greer’s interest in joining the SMMS panel was strong when he learned that the panel would be organized by subject matter expertise. Greer’s passion for construction and real estate is evident not only in his experience in construction, real estate and business law, but also because he’s a licensed general contractor. Beginning his career as in-house counsel for a top ten construction contractor and developer in San Diego County, Greer’s immersion into the field of construction and real estate law began in 1986. Since 1997, he has also mediated and arbitrated hundreds of cases in the field.

“As an advocate on behalf of builders, contractors and homeowners I became increasingly frustrated with the pace of the litigation process. In my litigation practice, it was refreshing to achieve resolution of claims in a mediation format (many of which were complex construction defect cases and class action realty matters). As a mediator and arbitrator for these past 15 years, drawing on that litigation experience, I have been focused on bringing the parties to ‘yes’ in most efficient manner possible. This focus is especially important now, with the more budget-burdened court system, that seems to have reverted to a slower processing of civil lawsuits,” Greer says.

ALLENFor Allen Gruber, whose specialization lies in Real Estate Law and Commercial Litigation, the attraction to joining SMMS stemmed from his desire to utilize his 40+ years of real estate and commercial litigation experience and his 5+ years of mediating cases to assist others in efficiently and ethically resolving similar disputes. Moreover, joining the SMMS panel would complement his role as a long time commercial arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association and as an adjunct professor and supervising attorney for the live Client Civil and the Landlord Tenant Clinics at the University of San Diego School of Law. Additionally, mediating cases with SMMS would further facilitate his role as a real estate broker and in-house counsel and advisor to the broker associates and agents at the Keller Williams San Diego Central Coastal office.

STEVESteve Oggel also boasts a legal career spanning more than 40 years, with the last fifteen of them focusing on mediation. Prior to that, Oggel served in the armed forces, where his legal career began, before retiring as a captain in the Marine Corps in 1970. Since then, he has brought more than 75 cases to trial, in the fields of business litigation and real estate law, with a niche specialty in antitrust issues. Oggel is also a licensed California real estate broker. Lately, Oggel has been active in teaching anti-trust at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and providing lectures to groups like Oasis. “With the present budget problems, trials will be delayed for years. Mediation is the best, least expensive and confidential answer to this problem,” Oggel says.

High End Expertise and a High End Experience

With the team of specialists in place for the launch of SMMS, Sohn recognized that in addition to the expertise that attorneys and their clients would receive from the panel of mediators, they would expect a mediation experience that would be equally as impressive. To that end, Cheri Sohn stepped in to create a very friendly and comfortable setting for the mediations. “When mediation clients come in, it’s high stress. Of course, it’s not as stressful as a trial setting, but there is an emotional component to all mediation,” Cheri says. “If I can put the clients at ease, and be a friendly welcoming face, it helps,” she adds.

To accomplish this, beverages and snacks are available free of charge for all half day mediations. Full day mediations include lunch, which she admits includes a lot of healthy foods and fruit. “People are not effective when their blood sugar crashes. We need everyone to be feeling their best while they are here, so that they can accomplish what they came to do,” she says.

“We’re committed to providing a first class experience here,” agrees Doug. However, part of providing a premium experience means that the panel knows its own limits. That is, they are not trying to be everything to everyone. Instead, they focus on being the best in their specified areas of expertise. “We are not for everyone. But for those whose disputes involve one of the areas in which we specialize, and involve a significant amount in dispute, we give the participants their best chance at resolution.” Because of that, Sohn has high expectations. “We expect mediation to continue to grow as a valuable dispute-resolution tool, and we expect that our San Diego office will be fully booked within the next 12 months. We also plan to add an Intellectual Property mediator to our panel very soon. After that, we will be opening offices in Orange County and other Southern California markets,” Sohn says.

In the meantime, though, the panel of mediators at SMMS is focusing on the immediate future, and is looking forward to their formal introduction to the legal community at the State Bar Annual Meeting October 10-13, 2013, where they will be at booth 510. “We’re all excited to show our new clients that they can easily find the mediator at SMMS who has the subject matter expertise that he or she needs,” Sohn adds. After all, when it comes to mediation, the “subject matters,” says Sohn


Subject Matter Mediation Services, Inc.

4225 Executive Square
Suite 600
La Jolla, CA 92037

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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