EAST MANATEE -- Court mediation can be exhausting -- even finding an agreeable location can be tiring.
Lawyer couple Trent and Lesa Miller aim to solve at least part of that conundrum as they open their Florida Mediation & Conference Center.
The space, at 887 62nd St. Circle E., provides a place where two sides can hash out their differences outside of the courtroom. It even features a mock courtroom for trial preparation in high-profile cases.
"We tried to create it in a way that would be inviting to mediators, inviting to parties who participate in mediation and soothing in the context of dispute resolution," said Trent Miller, who represents insurance companies and employers.
The Millers purchased the complex known as The K Centre of State Road 64 last year in part because they already own the Dunkin' Donuts in front of it, Lesa Miller said. When the family took over the space, three of the seven buildings were just shells with dirt floors.
After some research, the couple planned the conference center and moved their law offices there as well. The conference center and mock trial courtroom is one of the only of its kind on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Mediations can last from
two hours to a 12-hour marathon, even longer, until the two sides either agree to settle their differences or give up. The decisions aren't binding like arbitration hearings. But the conference center can also be used for arbitration meetings.
"People who show up for mediation are there for a very good reason: They're not happy with each other," Trent Miller said. "They were so unhappy that they wanted to sue one or the other. We wanted to give them an environment that will not be threatening and that will allow them to be as far apart as the mediator wants to put them."
The rooms can be rented either per hour, per half day or full day, or the entire center can be rented, which includes four conference rooms and the mock courtroom.
Judges require mediation to resolve differences in Florida for certain cases, including worker's compensation and mortgage foreclosure, while it's an optional step in other cases, Lesa Miller said.
"They do provide a state mediator, but often, very often, the parties want a private mediator because they feel a little more invested in getting it resolved," Lesa Miller said.
Private mediators tend to have more flexible schedules and meeting locations. But meeting locations can be finicky, too. At least one local mediator thinks the center will alleviate that.
"We have another center down in Lakewood Ranch, but that is associated with mortgage foreclosure, so as long as they're not using it for that, you can utilize that. But that comes first," said Theresa Pappa-Furth of Mediation Plus in Parrish, specializing in family and circuit civil mediation. "It's right off the interstate and not too far in between. I think people would travel."
Soundproof rooms here shouldn't be overlooked either, Pappa-Furth said.
"When I was getting my certification through the courthouse, they would say, 'Can you wait outside?' How do you know they're far enough outside where they can't hear you?" she asked.
Lesa Miller said the conference center aims to be a clearinghouse for people to connect with specialized mediators. Not all mediators are required to have a legal background, but it helps if they have a specialization.
"I had a preconceived notion that you should have to know something about the area of law, but in mediation training they tell you that anybody who is a mediator can do any type of dispute," said Lesa Miller, who specializes in representing injured workers and families. "But I think it does help to have some background in that area."
Panel mediators would be part of a membership for listings and special prices and services with the firm, ranging from $50 a year to $375 a year.
The most elaborate part of the center is a mock courtroom that includes a witness stand, judge's bench, places for the plaintiff and defendant and a jury box. Here, attorneys can rehearse cases to either prepare witnesses and defendants or try a case in front of a mock jury to see how a case could go.
Jury consultants could come from across the country to use the spaces for trials, Lesa Miller said. In some of these mock cases, consultants mail out invitations to people in a jury pool and pay them to be a mock juror and to give feedback on a case.
"It's almost like market testing. An attorney sets them up in here and presents his case and asks them, 'What did you find particularly persuasive? Was there something I didn't tell you about that you'd like to hear more about?''' she said. "They can fine-tune their case hearing what actual potential jurors would feel."
Lesa Miller also hopes to reach out to local schools to provide a realistic atmosphere for a civics lesson -- especially for her daughter Grace's middle school class.
One of her four children, 9-year-old Faith, wants to be a lawyer one day like her parents, and would love to have some time in the mock courtroom. Her own law inspirations, though, aren't totally because of her parents.
"I found a fortune cookie and I opened it up it said, 'You will make a good lawyer,'" Faith said.
Sounds like case closed for at least one Miller.
For more information, visit www.flmcc.com or call 1-800-798-FMCC.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.