I sometimes think of Atlanta as an extended family member that we’ve watched grow up over the years. During our lifetimes, we’ve seen new buildings transform Peachtree Street from downtown to Buckhead. But along with the deals and office towers have come plenty of disagreements that have filled court calendars. Construction litigator Keith Lichtman built a healthy practice helping clients address those disputes.
After 15 years as a construction litigator, Lichtman noticed that many of the disputes that came to him involved family businesses and were rooted in family disputes. It was a disturbing thought to him, and he found there were not many, if any, mediators focused on meeting this particular need. He knew that families could benefit from the same structured mediation approach that he often saw effective in the commercial setting. This led him to counsel more family businesses, and in 2017 he co-founded Bridgewater Resolution Group, which brings dispute resolution services to high net worth families and closely held businesses.
His move is a good example of building a new practice area at mid-career that uses the existing practice as a launching point. At the same time, he still serves as a trial attorney through The Lichtman Firm, with its focus on construction disputes and other litigation, knowing that some cases won’t resolve short of trial.
Lichtman had thought for years about placing less emphasis on his litigation practice, but he enjoyed the competition, especially those cases that went to trial. Still, with the expense, time and uncertainty of placing complex business problems in the hands of 12 jurors, more than 90 percent of his cases settled. “Think about what a gamble it is to have 12 random people decide a multimillion-dollar construction case,” Lichtman explains. “At the end of the day, most contractors don’t want to put their fate in the hands of 12 strangers with no experience in construction.”
Lichtman began to see that he was passionate about mediation, and he found that he enjoyed untangling disputes and finding settlement solutions, especially for families. “Many families just don’t communicate as well as they can or should. You’d be surprised how many people have a patriarch or matriarch pass away, and only after the funeral do they begin to understand what the succession plan (or lack thereof) was for the family business they spent their life building,” he says. “You should never run a business without a succession plan, but many people don’t plan appropriately because they are reluctant to talk about money and other sensitive issues with the next generation in the family.”
Lichtman realized that emotional intelligence and understanding people were keys to being successful as a mediator. “You need to be an active listener,” he says. “You need to take into account the emotions and perspectives on all sides before it’s possible to help parties think rationally about a resolution.”
No practice change should be undertaken without careful consideration, he advises. He talked over his plans with wealth advisers, career coaches, estate planners, accountants, as well as family law attorneys, before deciding that his approach could fill a niche.
Lichtman tapped his network to find a partner, approaching a mentor and esteemed mediator, George Reid, with his business plan. Lichtman describes Reid as “the most high-integrity and best mediator I know.” A veteran litigator himself, Reid has also mediated more than 2,000 disputes over 40 years, and his experience and demeanor were exactly what Lichtman hoped for in a partner for Bridgewater Resolution Group.
Lichtman says it is easier than ever now to get up in the morning, knowing that his mission is to help families communicate more effectively and find solutions that work for them and their businesses. As for litigating, he hasn’t lost his touch. Recently, he was lead counsel in a jury trial that resulted in one of the largest verdicts in Georgia. While he much prefers mediated solutions, he says his collaborative approach as a mediator and litigator is that much more effective when it is backed up by the ability and willingness to go to trial when necessary.
Robin Hensley’s column is based on her work as president of Raising the Bar and coaching lawyers in business development for more than 25 years. She is the author of “Raising the Bar: Legendary Rainmakers Share Their Business Development Secrets.”