Mediator Focus: Tom Harris

By: Penny Gans | WAMS Staff

harrisTom Harris is the newest member of the WAMS panel, but he’s no ordinary rookie. Like the Mariners’ “rookie” Ichiro a few years ago, Tom comes to WAMS with a highly successful past career, an extensive fan club, focus, discipline, and an infectious enthusiasm for this new stage of his life.

Tom has been a trial lawyer in Washington State for 33 years, representing thousands of plaintiffs and defendants. In 1995 he published Washington Insurance,  a 60-chapter textbook, now in its second edition. His reputation as an expert in insurance law resulted in his appointment as mediator for the 2001 Anacortes refinery fire case and, shortly thereafter, the Olympic Pipeline explosion. After tenacious post-session follow-up, both cases settled. Tom’s success with these complicated cases generated a steady stream of new ADR opportunities and led to conversations with his friend, WAMS panel member Larry Levy, about a career transition from litigator to full-time neutral. Tom hit the ground running at WAMS in January 2007.

Although he always enjoyed trial work, Tom feels that acting as a neutral is “the highest and best use of my experience so far.” He understands trial lawyers and their clients, and his trial experience helps him to know how judges and juries are likely to react to a case. He enjoys getting into the issues with lawyers and having the opportunity to see both sides of the case. Tom likes “getting case materials that have been all worked up so that the issues are clear. The cases are generally interesting, and I like seeing a new case every day.” He also believes that “people should consider mediating sooner, before lots of money is spent. The core of the case is usually the same from the beginning, and mediating before a case is filed is better economically for the plaintiff.” Preparation and follow-up are keys to Tom’s success. He goes through the case materials at least twice, distilling the key issues for each side. If the initial mediation session doesn’t result in settlement, Tom follows up with the parties as long as there is any possibility for agreement.

Born in Greenwich Village in New York City, Tom did his undergraduate work at Harvard and graduated from Cornell Law School. He fell in love with the idea of the Pacific Northwest via TV, while watching a UW football game one beautiful Seattle fall afternoon. Diploma in hand, Tom packed his bags and came West, joining Seattle firm Merrick Hofstedt & Lindsey as employee number six. “The partners were like three fathers to me,” according to Tom, “and in those days the young guys actually got to try cases. The 70’s and 80’s were a golden age of trial work in Seattle, and I loved the lawyers and the story-telling.” Tom met his wife, another transplanted Easterner (a “Maine-iac”) in Seattle. Their 25-year-old son is a Wharton graduate and has recently begun a Wall Street career. Tom and his wife are about to begin building a summer house on family property in Maine, so they are frequent fliers to the east coast.

Tom loves his work as a neutral. “Lawyers are fun! I like all sizes of cases and get as much satisfaction from the small ones as from those involving many parties. In fact, I feel I can do more good for people in the smaller cases. Working with WAMS lets me have an impact on many more cases than was possible in my litigation practice.” Luckily for WAMS and Tom’s clients, Tom’s daughter is just beginning law school in Boston, so he also has a financial incentive to keep making that impact for years to come.

“Although he always enjoyed trial work, Tom feels that acting as a neutral is ‘the highest and best use of my experience so far.”

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