Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2015
Rich Spier's Goals as President
A good mediator is cut from a different cloth. A person can be trained in the techniques of mediation, but to consistently be effective at it is partly instinctual.
According to those who know Richard G. Spier, he possesses those instincts in spades. His penchant for finding a way to “right the ship,” as one lawyer puts it, will serve him well as 2015 president of the Oregon State Bar, colleagues say.
“He does a wonderful job of helping people figure out what they just said,” observes Matthew H. Kehoe, a Hillsboro attorney who served with Spier on the OSB Board of Governors. “I’ve never seen him get mad; he’s a level-headed guy. There’s a lot of cats to herd on the bar. I like the way he’s good at getting to the point. He’s a good choice for bar president; he will do a fine job in representing us.”
If indeed being an experienced mediator translates into qualifying to serve as OSB president, Spier (pronounced “spear”) certainly possesses the credentials. He left regular law practice in 1992 to do private arbitration and mediation full time, one of the first Oregon lawyers to choose that path. He estimates that he has heard 1,000 arbitrations and conducted perhaps 2,000 mediations, making him among the most experienced lawyer-neutrals in Oregon.
Several years ago, he stopped accepting new arbitrations and limited his practice to full-time mediation. “For me, mediation is harder work — the neutral has to be constantly interactive and proactive with the participating lawyers and parties — but I like it much more than arbitration,” Spier says. He enjoyed doing arbitration, which he notes is like being a judge, and “the intellectual challenge of deciding which position is more correct.”
But in arbitration, he adds, “You have to pick a winner. You know one side is going to be unhappy. In mediation, you can reach a result that is acceptable to both positions enough to move on. What’s satisfying to me is to see the sense of relief, even though I know they wanted more.
“It is satisfying to work with multiple participants in the same mediation while having to understand the legal issues, financial realities and concerns, relationship issues between and among the parties, and emotional issues, the majority of the time leading to a settlement that is satisfactory to all sides.”
Christopher B. Rounds, a Vancouver, Wash., lawyer who has known Spier for many years and used him as a mediator, observes: “He’s the guy you use when you need someone who won’t take no for an answer. At one point I called him the James Brown of mediators, the hardest-working man in show business. He comes well prepared and asks tough questions. He prides himself on how hard he works. He works the daylights out of his cases, which is why he will make a great bar president.”
But Rounds acknowledges that, because of Spier’s tenacity in trying to reach a resolution: “There are times when you want to strangle him. You’re tired of the case, you’re sick of your opponent, it’s getting late.” When they recognize that the case is at an impasse, some mediators will throw in the towel. Not Spier, he says. “He’ll say, ‘We’re making some progress. Let’s see what happens.’ It usually pans out.”
Rich Spier was raised in two metropolises on opposite coasts. Born in New York City, he grew up on Long Island in Woodmere, N.Y., until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 13. At North Hollywood High School, he was active in student government as presiding judge of the student court, while being designated in his graduating class poll as the class “Nonconformist.”
His parents had high expectations of their two sons, assuming without question that they would excel academically, which Rich and his younger brother, Douglas — now a retired stock broker in Omaha, Neb. — did. Their father had been a talented athlete, but Rich failed to inherit that trait. To compensate for that perceived deficit, his dad, Alvin, now 93 and living in Portland, volunteered as a Little League baseball coach to ensure that Rich would make the team — and also get some playing time rather than perpetually ride the bench.
That tactic worked, and it also served to force young Rich to develop a characteristic his dad emphasized. “He encouraged me to do things I was afraid to do, to push myself beyond my limitations of shyness,” Spier explains. “To put yourself out there trying things that may seem difficult. If you fail at something, try again.” Spier is grateful to his father for this lesson; today when Spier gives CLE presentations or otherwise speaks before a group, he doesn’t suffer stage fright, thanks to this early exposure to challenging himself to move beyond his comfort zone.
Spier credits both his parents — his mother, Doris, is deceased — for positively influencing his direction in life. He had no lawyers in his family, although an uncle was a physician, and Spier first recalls considering a legal career during the summer before his senior year in college. Like numerous others who ended up entering the profession, he was inspired by the “Perry Mason” TV show, but also like some other devotees of the program who went into the law, “I don’t think I had a good understanding of the profession,” he admits.
He did his undergraduate study at Stanford University, majoring in sociology. As a sophomore, Spier attended Stanford’s campus in Florence, Italy, for six months. While there, he hitchhiked around the country on long weekends; he still can speak some Italian he picked up there. After graduation, “Going to law school seemed the logical thing to do,” he says, and he was accepted and attended one year at Yale Law School, where a student named Hillary Rodham was in his same class. (Bill Clinton arrived there a year later.)
While Spier was at Yale in the fall of 1969, America inaugurated its Vietnam-era draft lottery, “and I received a low number,” he says. A fellow student, a Tennessean by the name of Barbee B. Lyon, encouraged Spier to instead of waiting to be drafted, consider joining the Navy, which Lyon himself had done. (Now a Portland lawyer, Lyon was to play another important role a little later in Spier’s life.) Spier accepted the advice and entered the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. After commissioning as a Navy line officer, he was assigned on a World War II-era destroyer. He joined the ship part way through one deployment to the waters surrounding Vietnam, and was aboard later for a full deployment there.
Spier came out of the service gaining an insight into leadership, perhaps one he can apply as OSB president: “I learned that despite the theoretical levels of authority within the military hierarchy, things don’t happen just because leaders order them to happen. Members of an organization find ways not to comply with directives they don’t understand or with which they don’t agree. Even in the military, effective leadership requires listening and explaining, not dictating.”
His initial visit to Oregon occurred during the summer between his first year of law school and active duty with the Navy. Spier worked as a law clerk at a Sears Roebuck in-house legal office in Los Angeles. As part of that job, he assisted one of the lawyers on a trip to Portland for a few days. After Navy service and before returning to law school, he spent nearly a year as a VISTA volunteer legal assistant at the Multnomah County Legal Aid office in Portland.
“The choice of Portland for this period was based on my short visit here while clerking for Sears, and led ultimately to my decision to return after law school graduation,” he says. “I liked the atmosphere; it was less hectic than L.A. I had it in mind as a good place to end up.”
Spier returned for his second and third years of law school, this time at Cornell Law School. While there, he took a trial techniques course from Irving Younger, a former New York City judge and well-known CLE speaker. “Professor Younger taught the key concepts that you can’t be too prepared, and to keep all presentations short and to the point,” Spier explains. “In summary, he taught that the best approach in the courtroom is often to sit down and shut up after you have briefly and clearly made your point. This is great advice. This was my best and most memorable law school class.”
It also solidified his interest in becoming a litigator. After obtaining his law degree magna cum laude from Cornell, “I was interested in coming back here,” he says. He was admitted to the Oregon bar and was able to clerk for two years for the then-chief judge of the U.S. District Court, Otto R. Skopil Jr., later a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Again, Yale classmate Lyon, who by then was practicing law in Portland and with whom Spier had renewed acquaintance, offered Spier valuable advice. He told Spier: “I clerked for Otto Skopil. You should apply for that.” “I knew I wanted to be a judge’s law clerk,” Spier says. Lyon recommended him to Skopil, and Spier was accepted.
“This was a great experience, personally and professionally,” Spier says. “Judge Skopil was practical and respectful to lawyers, litigants, witnesses, jurors and court staff. He was a kind and thoughtful man.” Working under him, “I saw real lawyers, real judges, real cases,” he says. Spier picked up practical skills by learning on the job, as opposed to the “theoretical” knowledge he was taught in law school, he adds.
Learning to ‘Show a Sense of Urgency’
After clerking for Skopil, Spier worked for two years as an associate in litigation at what is now the Bullivant Houser Bailey firm. “While there, I learned from senior partner Doug Houser to ‘work your files.’ Delay and avoidance of difficult problems cause client frustration and added expense and lawyer anxiety.”
Houser, who has spent nearly 54 years as an Oregon attorney, says of Spier: “Our offices were approximately three inches apart, and we worked on many matters together. I rapidly learned to trust Rich’s good judgment and reliability. He was always a good listener. Too many trial lawyers talk better than they listen. Rich did both well. He had a great work ethic and many admirable character qualities. It was obvious early that Rich was a very special person and trial lawyer.”
Another colleague Spier met at Bullivant was Albert Menashe, who much later became president of the OSB. “We became fast friends,” Menashe says. “He has a great brain, but also a great heart. He’s a really fine person, a people person.” Menashe encouraged Spier to run for the Board of Governors. “I’m pleased but not surprised to learn he’s going to be bar president. I think he’s going to make a superb bar president.”
Spier next practiced at what is now Sussman Shank, as an associate and later a partner. Then-managing partner Barry P. Caplan taught new lawyers to show a sense of urgency about their cases, Spier recalls. Caplan confirms that memory. “I was taught that by Gilbert Sussman, who founded our firm,” Caplan says. “That’s why I liked to pass it on. Clients aren’t interested in the process, but the results.”
Caplan remembers Spier’s “unique abilities. He did a terrific job. I was very fond of Rich. I had a lot to do with hiring him.” Spier worked with him on a complex case in 1989-90. “He did 80 percent of the work and all the arguing in court,” Caplan says. The two lost in a summary judgment, then appealed to the 9th Circuit. “They agreed with us and gave us a partial summary judgment. We were able to settle. It was one of the outstanding cases I’ve been involved with. He may have changed the direction of his legal career, but he was every bit as good a litigator as I’ve ever seen.”
Spier says other supportive and influential colleagues at Sussman Shank were Norman Wapnick, “who stressed fairness and reasonable billing for clients, and Gilbert Sussman, who emphasized the wisdom of settlement of most cases.”
Another colleague of Spier’s at Sussman Shank was a law clerk named Sylvia Stevens. Now OSB executive director, Stevens joined the firm at about the same time as Spier. The two shared office space and worked on some cases together.
“We tried a jury trial together when she was still a law student, and I recall that she whispered the legal authority to me that I needed to tell the judge in order to obtain a directed verdict,” Spier recounts. “We were later associates and partners together, and I am very pleased that we have been back working together at the OSB. She is a superb executive director, an amazingly effective manager of this organization and very well-respected by members of the bar and the judiciary.”
“I always enjoyed working with Rich,” says Stevens. “We left the firm within a month of each other. We knew each other starting our careers, and now here we are 23 years later working together again. I’m looking forward to working with Rich, who is one in a long line of fine presidents.” She describes Spier as “open-minded, unassuming, approachable,” a president who will be able to relate well with members all across the state.
At Bullivant and Sussman Shank, Spier had a civil litigation practice, with a focus on commercial and business cases, insurance defense and complex and multiple-party cases. He estimates that he tried about 20 cases, mostly jury trials. In the mid-1980s, as a relatively small part of his practice, Spier started serving as an arbitrator, through the American Arbitration Association, the Oregon court-mandated arbitration program and private engagements. Thereafter, as mediation became popular in business and tort cases, he began receiving engagements as a mediator. While still at Sussman Shank, he served on the executive committee and then chair of the OSB Alternative Dispute Resolution Section.
In 1992, he left the firm to establish a full-time practice as an arbitrator and mediator. He earns an A.V. rating from Martindale-Hubbell, was named 2014 Lawyer of the Year for Mediation in Portland by Best Lawyers, and was accepted for membership in the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals.
“I am proud and honored that a mediator has been selected as president of the OSB, which I see as a recognition of the importance of alternative dispute resolution as an option that lawyers can offer their clients to help solve problems in appropriate cases.”
Nevertheless, Spier holds some incisive views of how mediation fits into the scheme of things. He limits his practice to cases in which each party is represented by counsel who participate actively in the mediation. Effective advocacy is an important part of the negotiation and mediation process, he says. “Mediation, when pursued in cases that call for it, is an integral part of the litigation process, not separate from it.”
Like most current trial lawyers and past ones such as himself, Spier thinks more cases should be tried.
“Lawyers need a reputation of being ready, willing and able to try cases in order to achieve reasonable settlements for clients,” he says. “Trial of a sufficient number of cases is basic to the rule of law. Trial results help lawyers and counsel evaluate the reasonableness of settlement terms.
“Good lawyers can have discussions with the other side and settle or decide whether to take it to trial. Even though I’m a mediator, I believe that most cases shouldn’t be mediated,” he asserts. “I earn my living as a mediator, yet I believe lawyers don’t need to mediate most cases in order to settle. Direct negotiations between lawyers worked well in the past, before mediation became common, and should be sufficient in most cases now.”
He adds that although he is an enthusiastic user of technology, settlement negotiations are best conducted in person or over the phone, not by email or text messages.
“Rich’s talents and patience as an outstanding mediator will serve all Oregon lawyers well,” says Bullivant’s Houser. “I am confident that, as in all things in which Rich has been involved, Rich will leave the Oregon State Bar a much better place than he found it.”
Oregon’s National Reputation
Outside of work, Spier enjoys hiking and spending time with his wife, Dr. Gloria J. Myers, an internal medicine physician. Hikes can be at the beach or in the woods, and sometimes the couple walk downtown from their Grant Park home in Northeast Portland.
Their family includes five sons, one daughter and two grandchildren. One of Spier’s three sons, Zachary D. Spier, is an attorney with his own litigation practice in Northwest Portland. The others are Ethan Ezekiel “Zeke” Spier, executive director of the Social Justice Fund Northwest in Seattle, and Ezra J. Spier, director of community at Other Machine Co. in San Francisco.
Rich Spier’s stepchildren are: Jennifer D. Myers, a Mountain View, Calif., software developer with a doctorate in neuroscience; Andrew D. Myers, a special agent with the FBI in San Francisco; and Jeffrey D. Myers, sales operations manager at Symantec in Beaverton.
Spier has realized more and more — particularly when he attends national conferences or mediates sessions that include attorneys from other states — how much the rest of the country respects our bar.
“Lawyers who come here for mediation with me often comment that Oregon lawyers are effective, but also humble and professional,” he says. “That’s accurate. You don’t always hear that about other states. Oregon lawyers have a special reputation for professionalism and civility. I think this is due to the relatively small size of the Oregon bar, and I think it is due to the Oregon spirit — a sense of responsibility to the community and to the environment, progressiveness and optimism, mutual respect and courtesy, and gratitude for the good fortune of living in this special part of the world.
“One of the pleasures for me of being a full-time mediator is working closing with large numbers of lawyers, mostly members of the Oregon State Bar. I like and respect lawyers in general, and see that members of the OSB, with few exceptions, are genuinely nice people.”
Spier considers OSB managers and staff “hard-working and dedicated,” and he praises the other members of the OSB Board of Governors. “My colleagues put in long, hard hours in service to the members of the OSB and to the public. Any disagreements on policy questions are debated with energy, but also with respect and good humor. Hundreds of other OSB members also share their time, expertise and insight while serving on the numerous boards, committees and other groups that help the OSB carry out its responsibilities.
“It’s a privilege to be able to help lead this organization of fine lawyers,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. Reach him at email@example.com.
© 2015 Cliff Collins