Home / Profile / James Shapiro: Bringing
business sense to mediation work

James Shapiro: Bringing
business sense to mediation work

He is just no good at golf.
That, James Shapiro says, explains why he took to the law at a point in his career when most successful executives kick back and consult.
And if the luck Shapiro credits with putting him in the right place at the right time holds, mediation soon will drive litigation onto the sidelines in the field of solutions for business disputes.
Shapiro joined IBM Corp.’s marketing division “back when the biggest thing we sold computers against was the pencil.”
When he moved to Xerox Corp., the white-collar work force for the first time outnumbered workers with blue collars. So copiers were the hottest pieces of industrial equipment going.
Now, one year out of the University of Buffalo Law School, Shapiro is on board with the Mediation Center of Rochester, a private practice group under contract to the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce Inc. and the Fair Business Council.
Alternatives to the courtroom, Shapiro says, make sense to businesses, if not always to lawyers.
One Monroe County bar leader told him efforts to push mediation have stalled here in the past “because by the time the idea works its way up to the corporate general counsel’s office, it smells like a jury to them, and the last thing they want is to do business in front of a jury.”
Some say only skilled litigators should be involved in mediation, Shapiro comments, so they can use the courtroom alternative as courtroom preparation.
On the other hand, he observes mildly, mediation does save time and money. There are businesses that weigh such factors heavily.
By cutting the adversarial atmosphere, alternative dispute resolution can preserve and even build business relationships, Shapiro suggests.
And it can offer the advantage of a mediator who has worked in business, rather than a judge whose knowledge of a particular industry is limited to what the lawyers tell him about it.
Shapiro does not push these points. He does not give the impression he is arguing a case. But his case, somehow, gets made.
That ability puts him in a pivotal role on the Rochester Institute of Technology board of trustees, RIT president Albert Simone says.
“Early on, Jim distinguished himself by his clear thinking and forthright manner of expression,” Simone notes. “In discussions, he is always candid and balanced. And he has the rare trait of putting as much intensity into his listening as he does into his speech.”
Shapiro says he owes a lot to luck. The luck that seems to have put him on to the right product just when it was about to take off.
Not that Shapiro is new to creating novel solutions for problems between businesses. A University of Notre Dame graduate with a B.S. degree in marketing, he was trained at Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation some time ago, and has a little hands-on experience.
The Xerox facility the Chinese government shows off to important visitors like South African President Nelson Mandela is the result of a deal Shapiro worked out back when the only thing the parties to the venture knew about each other was neither would survive the other’s ideology.
After moving from marketing to product development at Xerox in the 1970s and running the New York operations, Shapiro was tapped to manage Xerox’s South Pacific business in 1984.
He was corporate vice president for a territory including New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.
For three years, Shapiro commuted between Rochester and China every other month, to negotiate a joint venture agreement.
“It was the last place a kid from the Midwest expected to find himself,” said Shapiro, who was born in Chicago in 1931 and raised there.
Today’s posh Western hotels were a thing of China’s future when Shapiro and the Xerox team went to work in cold rooms where cockroaches tapped across the ceilings. That, he says, is where he learned about learning.
At one point, the Chinese and Xerox spent half a day going back and forth over what seemed to the Americans to be a minor point in the negotiations.
The Chinese wanted the right to charge Xerox a penalty if shipments of supplies arrived late. Xerox agreed to pay a penalty, but only if the late shipments caused problems. Late shipments arriving at packed warehouses, Xerox said, should not be the occasion for penalties.
Round and round they went for hours. It was only after he had won that Shapiro learned how much the Chinese had given up.
Slapping penalties on each other is the most fun Chinese companies get to have. In a controlled economy, where there is no competition and no real profit motive, penalties are the way Chinese companies keep score, Shapiro was told.
But they gave in on that point and Xerox compromised on others, and in the end Xerox built a showpiece copier-manufacturing facility in China.
The China deal was signed and launched, and Shapiro was drafted to be president and CEO of DuPont-Xerox Imaging, another joint venture. This time, he commuted to Philadelphia.
In the book on investing in China he co-authored, Shapiro commented on how strange it is that the joint venture with partners separated by thousands of miles and clashing cultures lasted so much longer than the Xerox/Du Pont imaging effort, involving partners of the same culture, separated by a few hundred miles.
Meant to be a stand-alone enterprise, the venture dissolved when money got tough and partnership disputes arose. Perhaps the real crunch point involved something other than money and turf wars, Shapiro suggests: “The Chinese were very eager to learn.”
At that point in his life, Shapiro, too, decided he had something to learn, and that law school was as good a place as any to do it.
“Law has always been one of my fascinations, and it seemed a natural way to move with my business background,” Shapiro says.
Besides, there was his less-than-stellar golf game to consider. And, if he hurried, he could get through law school one year ahead of one of his sons.
Learning is something of a family business for the Shapiros. Shapiro and his wife of 31 years, Nancy, have raised two children with MBAs from Rochester Institute of Technology (James, 28, and Michael, 24); two with master of education degrees (Susan, 29, University of New Hampshire; and Megan, 24, Nazareth College of Rochester); and one lawyer, Jeffrey, 27, graduated this year from T.C. Williams Law School in Richmond, Va.
Shapiro was commuting again, this time to Buffalo. And his fascination with the law continued, tempered by his business grounding.
The billable hour, he thought, was a strange way to operate. “Nowhere in industry is there a benefit from being slow,” Shapiro observes. “Only in law.”
From the start Shapiro knew what only now is beginning to dawn on some of the biggest and best firms. And he was drawn to the field of alternative dispute resolution, despite a fascinating internship with the U.S. attorney’s office.
Shapiro loved sitting in on federal court hearings during school, just as he loves today to volunteer to screen complaints at the state Human Rights Commission. It is all learning.
But, having survived so many legal skirmishes in his long business career, Shapiro found ADR, mediation and arbitration, the most sensible place to combine his experience and new education.
Mediation, where the third party is a facilitator rather than a decision maker, is more demanding on a personal-skills level, Shapiro says.
“You have to manage to get your words into someone else’s mouth,” he explains.
But binding arbitration is the greater legal challenge, since the dispute must be defined and clarified up front, then reduced to contractual language that will hold the parties.
“Wordsmithing at the beginning clears the air of false issues and keeps everyone on point,” Shapiro says. “Defining the problem goes a long way toward solving it.”
As in his dealings with the Chinese, Shapiro says he urges parties to probe not just what they want, but why they want it. That process, which must precede arbitration, makes some problems disappear completely.
A fellow law school commuter and returning student, Hope Olsson, was not surprised at Shapiro’s post-degree turn toward ADR. Olsson is clerking in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court here.
“ADR is a perfect niche for a person like Jim, with his humanistic, common-sense approach to problem solving,” Olsson said. “Businesspeople must have confidence the person who is hearing their disputes speaks their language and understands their issues.”
During the tense period when Olsson and Shapiro studied for the bar exam together, she says she could not understand his comparative lack of anxiety. As it turned out, Shapiro was driving a friend for chemotherapy treatments during that time, and had decided that the bar exam was not the biggest deal going.
Business and law, practicality and high principles, Shapiro delivers his one-two punch to college students as well as ADR clients.
Long a member of RIT’s board of trustees, he recently wrapped up a course on business and society.
Shapiro’s final exam assignment? Write a code of ethics for business, he told the students. He says he expects to learn at least as much as the students from reading their answers.
[Rochester Business Journal Profile, 6/19/95]


Check Also


Gift from Pettinellas to fund aquatic center at new YMCA (access required)

  The YMCA of Greater Rochester has reached a turning point in its initial fundraising goal for its new Schottland ...


College at Brockport receives GLRC grant (access required)

The College at Brockport is one of four state colleges and universities to receive grants from the Great Lakes Research ...