It is usually said that “conflict is not necessarily bad, abnormal, or dysfunctional; it is a fact of life” I would perhaps add that quite often conflict is a suitable opportunity to evolve and to solve problems. It is, in fact, a useful part of life and particularly, should I add, of businesses. And conflicts not only arise at the end of the business relationship or to terminate it, but also during it and the parties remain willing to continue it.
The 2008 EU Directive on certain aspects of mediation in civil and commercial matters states that «agreements resulting from mediation are more likely to be complied with voluntarily and are more likely to preserve an amicable and sustainable relationship between the parties.»
Can, therefore, mediation be used not only as an alternative to court or arbitration when terminating distribution agreements, but also to re-organize them or to change contract conditions? Would it be useful to solve these conflicts? What could be the advantages?
In distribution/agency/franchise agreements, particularly for those lasting several years, parties can have neglected their obligations (for instance minimum sales targets not attained).
Sometimes they could have tolerated the situation although they remain not very happy with the other party’s performance because they are still doing acceptable business.
It could also happen that one of the parties wishes to restructure the entire distribution network (Can we change the distribution structure to an agency one?), but does not want to face a complete termination because there are other benefits in the relationship.
There may be just some changes to be introduced, or changes in the legal structures (A mere reseller transformed in distributor?), legal frameworks, legal conditions (Which one is the applicable law?), limitation of the scope of contract, territory…
And now, we face the Covid-19 crisis where everything is still more uncertain.
In some cases, it could happen that there is no written contract and the parties wish to draft it; in other cases, agreements could have been defectively drafted with incomplete, contradictory or no regulation at all (Was it an exclusive agreement?).
The contracts could be perfect for the situation imagined when signed several years ago but not anymore (What happen with online sales?) or circumstances, markets, services, products have changed and need to be reconsidered (mergers, change of directors…).
Sometimes, even more powerful parties have not the elements to oblige the weaker party to respect new terms, or they simply prefer not to impose their conditions, but to build up a more collaborative relationship for the future.
In all these cases, negotiation is the usual strategy parties follow: each one is focused in obtaining its own benefits with a clear idea of, for instance, which clause(s) should be modified or drafted.
Nevertheless, mediation could add some neutrality, and some space to a more efficient, structured and useful approach to the modification of the commercial relationship, particularly in distribution agreements where the collaboration (in the past, but also in the future if the parties wish so) is of paramount importance.
In most of these situations, personal emotional aspects could also be involved and make more difficult a neutral negotiation: a distributor that has been seen by the manufacturer as not performing very well and feels hurt, an agent that could consider a retirement, parties from different cultures that need to understand different ways of performing, franchisees that have been treated differently in the network and feel discriminated, etc.
In these circumstances and in other similar ones, where all persons involved, assisted by their respective lawyers, wish to continue the relationship although maybe in a different way, a sort of facilitative mediation can be a great help.
These are, in my opinion, the main reasons:
- Mediation is a legal and organized procedure that could help the parties to increase their awareness of the necessity to redraft the agreement (or drafting for the first time if it was not already done).
- Parties can be heard more easily, negotiation is eased in the interest of both of them, encourages them to act more reasonably vis-à-vis the other side, restores relationship if necessary, deadlock can be easily broken and, if the circumstances advice so, parties can be engaged separately with the help of the mediator.
- Mediation can consider other elements different to the mere commercial or legal ones: emotions linked to performance, personal situations (retirement, succession, illness) or even differences in cultural approaches.
- It helps to find the real (possibly new or not shown) interests in the commercial relationship of the parties, focusing in developments, strategies, new proposals… The mere negotiation between the parties and they attorneys could not make appear these new interests and therefore be limited only to the discussion on the change of concrete obligations, clauses or situations. Mediation helps to go beyond.
- Mediation techniques can also help the parties to face their current situation, to take responsibility of their performance without focusing on blame or incompetence but on a constructive and future collaboration in new specific terms.
- It can also avoid the increasing of the conflict into a more severe one (breaching) and in case mediation does not end with a new/redrafted agreement, the basis for a mediated termination can be established, if the parties wish so, instead of litigation.
- Mediation can conclude into a new agreement where the parties are more reassured, more comfortable with, and more willing to respect because they were involved in their construction with the assistance of their respective lawyers, and because all their interests (not only new drafted clauses) were considered.
- And, in any case, mediation does not affect the party’s collaborative position and does not reduce their possibility to use other alternatives, including litigation or arbitration to terminate the agreement or to oblige the other party to respect its legal obligations.
The use of mediation does not need the parties to have foreseen it in the agreement (although it could be easier if they did so) but they can use it freely at any time.
This said, a lawyer proposing mediation as a contractual clause or, in case it was not included in the agreement, as a procedure to face this sort of conflicts in distribution agreements, will be certainly seen by his/her client as problem-solving attorney looking for the client’s interests rather than a litigator pushing them to a more uncertain situation, with unknown costs and unforeseeable timeframe.
Parties in distribution agreements should have this possibility in mind and lawyers have the opportunity to actively participate in mediation from the first steps by recommending it in the initial agreement, during the process helping the clients to express their concerns and interests, and in the drafting of the final (new) agreement, representing the clients’ and as co-author of their success.
If you would like to hear more on the topic of mediation and distribution agreements you can check out the recording of our webinar on Mediation in International Conflicts
 Moore, Christopher W. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict. Jossey-Bass. Wiley, 2014.
 Mnookin, Robert H. Beyond Winning. Negotiating to create value in deals and disputes (p. 53). Harvard University Press, 2000.
 Fisher, R; Ury, W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in. Random House.
 «Talking about blame distracts us from exploring why things went wrong and how we might correct them going forward. Focusing instead on understanding the contribution system allows us to learn about the real causes of the problem, and to work on correcting them.» [Stone, Douglas. “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most”. Penguin Publishing Group]