Mediator Man

Photo by Jeannie RiceDivorce is very hot these days with first marriages flopping at a 50 percent rate and second unions going down at 54 percent. About the only thing failing more consistently are fondue restaurants and third marriages, which take the collar at 57 percent. But while the market is clearly bullish on divorce, the process itself can be an absolute bear—money, money, money. So while many are eager to jump on the divorce bandwagon, unfortunately not everyone can afford it.

This is where John Biancardi comes in. Actually, this is where we go into John Biancardi's offices at Divorce Mediation Associates (DMA) in Newport Beach. There's John, smiling—not too wide—extending a handshake—not too firm, not too noodly—a vision of measured tones and manners.

“Hello, welcome,” he says, in his soft gray pants, vest and hair, quickly pointing out the softening effect of the office's crown molding. It was one of the first things they put in, he says, because it made the office just seem “like less of an office.” They chose the crown molding carefully, as they did the subdued paint on the wall and the soft gray tone of John's tie; everything considered for its effect—”we certainly weren't going to paint the walls red and yellow”—an effect that one might call muted, dull even, but that John would no doubt term neutral.

“A mediator, above all, is neutral,” he says.

Over the past 20 years, John has been neutral in labor, business and personal matters—neutral with married couples; business partners; cohabitating straight, gay and lesbian couples talking/arguing/ negotiating about working conditions, cheating partners and who's going to get the dog. Though his client list seems to cast a wide net, he says his method does not.

“All mediation is the same,” he says. “It recognizes that people need to say what's on their mind in a dispute, and disputes always come down to: this is what you did. This is how it affects my life. This is what I want.”

It was just a few months ago that John and partner Greg Aaardema opened DMA, becoming, John believes, the first mediation firm to specialize in marriage/ relationship dissolution.

“I think everyone should niche market,” he says. “And sadly, there is a lot of divorce in the universe; 240 every week in Orange County alone.”

According to John, the average divorce costs around $40,000 for the participants who, of course, also end up losing like half of their stuff. In ads you'll soon be reading and hearing, DMA claims that in almost all cases, it can deliver a thoroughly legal and binding divorce agreement for about $1,500, out the door, “soup to nuts,” as John likes to say.

How can they do it? Time, time, time.

Lawyers charge by the hour, and the hours tend to pile on in litigated divorce. In mediation, couples are brought together to hash out the terms of their divorce, facilitated by the mediator, who, if the mediator is John, can usually get the job done in 10 hours at a rate of 150 bucks an hour.

How can he do it? Listen, listen, listen.

“I want them to purge,” he says. “I listen to their story, uninterrupted. It takes only about an hour and a half or two hours each. That's it. They tell me there's nothing else to say because I don't interrupt them. They just want to feel like they've been heard. They need to vent because it's that process that allows them to move on beyond the negative emotion that often fuels a lawsuit and allows them to identify the issues of the settlement and move on.”

The problem litigating a divorce with a lawyer is that it's the lawyer who does all the talking; many times the participants they're talking about feel like they're being overlooked. Then a decision is handed down by another party, the judge, with both sides many times feeling like they've been screwed without their input. Same goes for arbitration, which, and John cannot stress this enough, is not the same as mediation, since, like litigation, arbitration involves handing over control of the settlement to a third party.

In mediation, the parties negotiate and must agree before an agreement is finalized. Of course, just because they work together doesn't make everyone make nice.

Couples talk with their backs to each other, couples berate each other and, yes, threaten each other, though John has never had anyone go over the table after someone.

“For some reason, when people find out what I do, that's the first question I'm asked,” he says. “Mediation is not meant to be healing, not meant to be therapeutic; mediation is not about fixing people. When they come to us, they're getting divorced. I'm just giving them the easiest, least costly way to do it.”

If you picked up a little steely black and white injected into the muffled gray, it's probably instructive to know that John's mother died when he was young, and his father, whom he refers to as “an alcoholic loser, and those are his good points,” stole the family's welfare checks for booze. He was raised by his grandparents in Boston, enlisted with the Marines at age 17 and was eventually stationed in Tustin.

He has lived in Orange County ever since. Today he resides in Laguna Niguel with his wife of 25 years.

He says watching the debris of other marriages hasn't taught him a lot except that “if you get married for the wrong reasons, you're pretty much doomed.”

He says he doesn't take a lot home with him and tries not to bring home into the office. Recently, a couple in a dispute with someone else told him during a break they had lost a child, something that could tug at the heart of a man raised with loss.

“It didn't affect me. I couldn't let it. I'm not their mom or dad or counselor,” he says, tugging at the side of his light gray vest. “I'm their mediator.”

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