After Contra Costa County Superior Court cut its discovery commissioner a year ago, a flood of motions threatened to swamp local civil courts.
If each judge had to hear five or ten discovery motions a week, there was a possibility "business would just grind to a halt; that was our fear," says county bar association president Jay Chafetz. (The county's four civil judges already faced substantially larger dockets because their fifth colleague's position also was cut.)
The bar's solution: volunteer "discovery facilitators" - local lawyers with at least ten years' experience who confer with litigants, often by phone, and work up discovery agreements to which the parties later stipulate in court. If there's no agreement, the facilitators make recommendations, and the court and the parties still save time and money.
Since mid-February, about 80 attorneys have been moderating discovery disputes of all shapes and most sizes. Peter A. Mankin, a local mediator and real estate and business lawyer who helped Chafetz and others develop the program, says some disputes have taken him more than twelve hours to resolve, though he and a judge agreed that a big class action was too complex to hand off to volunteers. Mankin has found the work enjoyable and satisfying.
In the first six months, Chafetz says, agreements were reached in more than 90 percent of the cases volunteers heard - heading off formal discovery motions. The volunteers even resolved some cases that would have gone to trial.