Robert Coulson
Robert Coulson (Courtesy photo)

Robert Coulson, head of the American Arbitration Association from 1971 to 1994 and a New York attorney for more than six decades, has died. He was 93.

He passed away Sept. 9 at Stamford Hospital, near his home in Riverside, Connecticut, following a stroke he had a week earlier while navigating a sailboat, said his son.

Coulson was among the longest-serving AAA presidents and helped expand the use of alternative dispute resolution in America’s legal system. He focused on devising improved systems of dispute resolution and was a lifelong proponent of ADR’s effectiveness and efficiency, writing numerous articles and eight books about ADR, such as “How to Stay Out of Court” and “Fighting Fair,” and penning letters to The New York Times advocating for expanded ADR curricula at law schools.

He also gave speeches across the U.S. and internationally backing the use of negotiation, mediation and arbitration over costly litigation. He also was a member of the International Council on Commercial Arbitration.

“He just loved conflict resolution, rather than the courts,” Cromwell Coulson, his son, said in an interview Monday, recalling the path his father chose after first practicing at law firms in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“Because he hated waste. So much countless waste of spending in litigation,” Cromwell Coulson, president and chief executive of OTC Markets Group, added. “He thought negotiation and charm were a high art. It’s easy to throw a punch, he said, and it’s hard to find common agreement.”

Wrote Robert Coulson himself in his 1968 book, “How to Stay Out of Court,” “Almost any human activity is more profitable than worrying a dreary lawsuit through the courts. More often than not, some better method for resolution can be found.”

He also said about himself, as quoted in the Andover (Prepatory School) Alumni Newsletter, “The bulk of my career was spent with the American Arbitration Association, trying to provide better systems of dispute resolutions. I have always been something of a skeptic, pushing back against silly rules.”

Robert “Bobby” Coulson was born in 1924 in New Rochelle, and grew up in New York City and Marblehead, Massachusetts. He was a raised a “child of privilege in the Great Depression,” Cromwell Coulson wrote in an eloquent biography about his father he penned in recent days. But Robert Coulson’s childhood was far from easy, as “he was a lonely boy with a workaholic for a father and a socialite mother,” Cromwell noted.

He was sent away on a train at age 8 to the Arizona Desert School, which “taught cowboy skills to privileged boys from the East.”

“They would read Kipling around the campfire and play polo in the dessert,” Cromwell Coulson wrote.

Later he would attend high school at Andover in Massachusetts and then serve in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Harbor Craft Company in England, according to Cromwell Coulson.

In 1950, he graduated from Yale University, and in 1953 from Harvard Law School. He practiced law in Boston, and later in Manhattan at his father’s law firm, Whitman, Ransom & Coulson. In 1963, he joined the AAA as executive vice president, a role in which he remained before becoming president and CEO for more than 20 years.

In retirement Coulson served as an arbitrator on commercial and labor disputes, his son said. He also wrote several novels based on offshore sailing races he’d competed in, along with a memoir, “A Cheerful Skeptic, Sailing Through Life.”

All the while, from age 7 on, Robert Coulson nurtured his love for sailing, taking to the water in countless races and on different boats.

“My love of sailing began when I was a little boy, when I first took the tiller of a Brutal Beast and discovered I could sail faster than most of the other children,” he wrote in his memoir, according to Cromwell Coulson. “It wasn’t just about racing. Being in control of a sailboat, sailing it out of the harbor and feeling a breeze on my face was part of it.”

Eventually he owned many sailboats, from small ones to a 40-foot cutter, the Finn MacCumhaill. He won the National Junior Sailing Championship Sears Trophy twice, Cromwell Coulson said. And at Yale his team was the national intercollegiate champions for three years, and he’s a member of the College Sailing Hall of Fame.

Coulson sailed the Finn for 20 years, winning trophies on New York Yacht Club cruises, the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, the St. Pete to Havana Race in 1950, and others. In Connecticut, he kept winning races with the 30-foot Finn Ratoon.

“He loved the independence of it,” Cromwell Coulson said of his father’s attachment to sailing. “The challenge, too, because you have to deal with shifting winds. Good sailors can never be control freaks. … It’s about consistency and coming back and being accepting of what’s thrown at you, but keeping your way.”

Coulson is survived by his wife of 57 years, Cynthia Coulson—his “great love,” Cromwell Coulson said. He’s also survived by their sons Crocker, Cromwell and Christopher; his daughter from his first marriage, Deirdre Macnab; and his brother Richard Coulson; along with 10 grandchildren. He was predeceased by son Cotton Coulson.

A gathering to celebrate his life will be held in October at Riverside Yacht Club. Details are not yet set.