Georgia State Law students participating in the Investor Advocacy Clinic represent investors in all aspects of Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) arbitration proceedings, from initial client interviews through arbitration hearings, including telephonic mediation.
The terms of the standard agreement between brokers and their customers requires investors to arbitrate most claims before FINRA. The forum offers parties in active arbitration cases free or low-cost telephone mediation for claims of $50,000 or less.
Under the supervision of assistant clinical professor and clinic director Nicole G. Iannarone, students were preparing for an arbitration hearing when they learned they would be part of a telephonic mediation. Though the nontraditional medium was out of the norm, they were up for the challenge.
“We prepared the way you would for any trial,” said Michael Williford (J.D. ’17). “We figured if we prepared for an arbitration hearing, we couldn’t be unprepared for mediation.”
The students created trial notebooks on the facts of the case, damages calculations and roughly 500 pages of documents including tax returns, industry reports, broker disciplinary reports and other supporting documents. After preparing the notebooks, they fully understood all aspects of the case, but they realized conducting mediation over the phone would present unique challenges to advocating for their client, Iannarone said.
“When you are face-to-face you have more of an opportunity to build a relationship with the mediator and paint a picture of your client and their case,” said Kelly Robinson (J.D. ’17). “Another bigger issue was that the mediator wasn’t in the room to examine the information that was outlined in the documents. While we were able to send a short memo about the story of the case, we couldn’t include all 500-plus documents that we were relying upon the mediator referencing.”
Despite the challenges presented by the format, the students adapted and adjusted their strategies to the situation at hand.
“The takeaway for me, aside from developing some valuable skills, is that you have to prepare, prepare, prepare, and even then you have to be able to shift your strategy on the fly as things unfold,” Williford said. “It is not a static or entirely predictable environment, but that’s what makes it exciting.”
Robinson believes her experience will help her become a better lawyer.
“The clinic does a great job emulating a firm environment. We are responsible for determining the next steps from potential client intake to closing the case,” she said. “When I started the clinic, the idea of calling a client and asking about their case was terrifying. Now, I’m completely confident when speaking with clients and have even gained experience arguing with opposing counsel over discovery disputes, something I never thought I would able to do my second year of law school.”
Iannarone commended her students for how they handled the case.
“They did an excellent job for their client,” she said. “The client’s interaction with the students when the case ultimately ended says it all: the students offered the client a handshake, which was refused in favor of a hug.”