AFFILIATION: ADR Services, American Arbitration Association, National Arbitration Forum

BORN: Nov. 5, 1942

LAW SCHOOL: Hastings College of the Law, 1986


Fred Butler was disheartened in 1981. After 14 years as a public housing administrator in Newark, N.J., he had taken a job overseeing the White Plains, N.Y., projects � an island of poverty in the middle of swanky Westchester County.

“For the first time, I dealt with the issue of containment,” he said. “People expected things to happen in public housing, and thought it was OK as long as it stayed there.”

Frustrated that local police were hesitant to clean up the projects, Butler, at age 40, quit after a year and decided to move to San Francisco to begin a second career.

“I had a lot of friends who were plumbers and electricians,” said Butler, who already had a bachelor’s degree in urban development and a master’s in public administration when he lived on the East Coast. “No one could tell them where to work. They worked for themselves, and it was a declaration of independence.”

That was important for Butler, whose 15 years as a public employee came after four years as an Air Force cryptographer (including a couple of weeks on a Key West beach in the run-up to the Cuban missile crisis). With independence in mind, he applied to law school and ended up at Hastings College of the Law.

After graduating, Butler worked as an associate at two firms, specializing in traditional labor law. He went from there into state government, starting the insurance commissioner’s Office of the Public Advisor, which was created to respond to citizen complaints, and remaining as public advisor from 1991 to 1995.

It was during that time that Butler first considered becoming a full-time neutral. “The experience as public advisor helped me appreciate the value of ADR,” he said.

So Butler began volunteering as a neutral for the San Francisco Community Boards and the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, as well as the San Francisco Police Department’s citizen complaints office.

From there, it wasn’t a huge leap to the career as a neutral that finally gave Butler the independence he had initially sought.

Now he’s a solo neutral based in San Francisco and affiliated with several different ADR providers � including ADR Services and the American Arbitration Association � with a practice that spans from binding securities-broker and labor arbitrations to voluntary mediation of corporate disputes.

Lawyers who’ve used his services say he’s a quiet and effective presence who keeps litigants calm and focused.

Butler, who charges $300 an hour, said that whenever he hears a case, his focus is on getting something more out of the process than litigants would get in court � “you’re talking about resolution, as opposed to settlement.”

That was the experience that Horace Meeks, a San Francisco solo, had.

Meeks, whose practice focuses on family law, had Butler mediate a dispute for a client whose damages were more emotional than monetary.

In that case, Meeks was representing a middle-aged African-American woman who went to a bank branch to withdraw about $2,000 for a trip to Las Vegas.

After mistakenly entering the wrong PIN � and signing a form with a signature that didn’t look exactly like the one on file � the woman was denied her funds, even though her driver’s license matched and a teller recognized her. When she later went to close her account and take out the $25,000 or so she had deposited, she was given a cashier’s check that took days to clear at another bank.

Meeks said his client believed she wouldn’t have gotten that runaround had she been a white man.

“She felt really strongly she’d been wronged, and she had been, and she just wanted to make a point,” Meeks said. “What they did was morally wrong, and I think Mr. Butler understood that.”

But, he said, Butler also understood that the plaintiff had a pretty weak case when it came to asking for damages.

“He made her understand she didn’t have a strong case. And she didn’t,” Meeks said. “At the same time he understood a wrong did happen and needed to be addressed, and he helped the bank understand that.”

In the end, they reached a settlement that had the bank pay for his client’s legal fees and therapy � “she probably broke even,” Meeks said � but, more importantly, the bank gave the plaintiff what she was ultimately asking for: an apology.

Dipanwita Amar, a partner at Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, said that in a binding labor arbitration in which she represented an employer, she also found Butler to be a good listener.

“He is balanced, and I think he has a nice judicial demeanor,” she said. “I think he listens to � and really thinks about � the evidence that is presented before him, and I think he’s perceptive in making credibility determinations.”

Other lawyers echo that, and Butler says he tries hard to evaluate the individuals before him. “I really try to spend time with parties ahead of time,” he said.

That tactic, Butler said, allows him to determine whether � and how long � to keep parties together or in separate rooms, and aids in his constant effort to keep negotiations calm, quiet and productive.

Kathleen McCormac, a solo who represents plaintiffs in employment cases, said that in the half-dozen or so cases she’s handled with Butler, he’s set a positive tone.

“Fred’s just even-keeled, and really, I always feel like Fred’s working very hard to maintain that sort of mediation,” she said. “Fred just makes it less stressful for everybody.”

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