Neal O'Toole, an A-list Polk County litigator once sought after for local high profile cases, is doing something vastly different these days: trying to keep cases out of the courtroom.
He's doing that through his fast-growing firm, Central Florida Mediation Group. The practice, with offices in Lakeland, Tampa and Orlando, has expanded its caseload 10% to 12% a year since 2012. Clients include several large corporate entities, such as Publix, Highlands Homes and Lakeland Regional Medical Center, a lengthy list of insurers nationwide and Polk County. It helps that most civil disputes in Florida are subject to mediation through the court system.
“The reason I got involved in mediation is it always bothered me as a trial lawyer that we offered our clients one thing — let's go to court,” he says. “In my view, lawyers are engaged in a service industry. Yet, we never give our clients any other option. We always order for our client and it's always the most expensive thing on the menu. To me, there's always different ways to approach any dispute, and they should all be considered before the parties heavily invest in litigation.”
O'Toole founded the mediation practice in 2009. Beyond his philosophical shift, the strategy was to capitalize on the housing bust, knowing all foreclosures were required to see a mediator before court. Central Florida Mediation Group now consists of three retired senior judges, seasoned trial attorneys, forensic mental health professionals, construction specialists and real estate brokers who work with clients toward an alternative dispute resolution.
“Our experience at CFMG has shown that even when we are not able to resolve a dispute, the process will more than pay for itself in terms of narrowing the issues and reaching some consensus on substantive or procedural matters,” he says. “Mediation helps define what the real dispute is. We may start out with 14 things and be able to narrow it down to six or seven.”
O'Toole's hourly fee of $200 is much easier for clients to swallow compared with what he charged as a litigator. Back then, fees of $400-$500 an hour were paid by clients such as Florida Tile, Jerue truck brokers and a list of builders and developers. Additionally, mediation doesn't take nearly as long as litigation, where billable hours can add up quickly. “We are talking the difference of tens of thousands of dollars,” he says.
Each mediator at CFMG has years of experience in a specific area like real estate and construction. “We craft solutions that the court system won't,” says J. Michael Hunter, a current mediator with the firm and a retired circuit court judge. “We think outside of the box, and even when it doesn't work it gets the parties talking. And, many times that is the only time they talk.”
Adds Hunter: “The biggest key to a successful mediation is the willingness to compromise. I consider it a good settlement when neither side is 100% happy but both can live with the outcome.”