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The Closer

At the heart of some of New England's biggest tragedies in recent years -- priests abusing boys, a tunnel collapsing on a woman, a nightclub going up in flames -- one blunt, foulmouthed, storytelling mediator has been helping everyone move on.

By Keith O'Brien
April 12, 2009
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On this cold morning, Paul Finn walks into his waterfront office in downtown Boston, hangs up his trench coat and hat, and slumps into a chair in a small conference room with an obstructed view of the icy, dismal harbor. With thick hands and thinning gray hair, he has the look of a man who wishes he were still at his vacation house in South Carolina, where the days are warm and the rounds of golf plentiful. But Finn, whose job as a mediator is to settle -- not win -- big-time, multimillion-dollar lawsuits, gets right down to business.

"Ask yourself this," he says in a deep, ragged voice that echoes in the little room. "I'm asking you this question: Is there enough money that I could give so that you would allow me to hurt your child?"

"No," I reply.

"Is there enough that I could give you so that you would allow me to hurt your wife?"

"No," I say again.

"Or hurt you?"

Again, I tell him no. And so, I've just learned Finn's first, brutal rule of mediation. There is never enough money to compensate someone who has lost a wife, a child, an arm, or a leg. If you're seeking justice, Finn tells the victims who come to see him, it's best to go somewhere else, because in his mediations, despite his sometimes coarse language, there is one four-letter word that he never uses.

"That word," Finn says, "is 'fair.' "

But while he cannot mete out fairness, Finn does have something else to offer, and it's the reason attorneys for both plaintiffs and defendants keep calling him to settle their legal battles and why he's become one of the most prominent mediators in Massachusetts. Finn -- often blunt, sometimes profane, always insightful, and never, ever pretentious -- will end the fight.

"I'm the one," Finn says, "who's going to stop it."

His record proves it. In recent years, Paul Finn, president and CEO of Brockton-based Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc., has brokered deals in some of the saddest, most high-profile civil lawsuits in the region, cases that might have dragged on for years and years were it not for Finn's involvement. In 2003, he secured an $85 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston for 552 victims in the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. Last year, he completed settlements totaling $176 million for victims of The Station nightclub fire that killed 100 and injured more than 200 others in Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003, and negotiated a $28 million agreement involving the family of Milena Del Valle, who was killed in the 2006 Big Dig ceiling collapse. (Late last month, Finn also brokered a $1.6 million deal between the state and a company involved in building the tunnel, one of the final settlements in the state's legal campaign against firms connected to the collapse.)

The settlements have made him not only a name, but also a commodity. Six years after his handling of the landmark church case, he's become one of the most sought-after mediators in clergy sex-abuse lawsuits across the country, finishing cases from New Jersey to Texas. The raped, the burned, the maimed, and the broken, the husbands who've lost wives and the wives who've lost husbands and the parents who've lost children -- they all come to Paul Finn. So, too, do the insurance executives and powerful public officials who are looking to compensate victims but also minimize the damages. The key to any mediator's success is trust. And the key to Finn's success, in particular, is his will to close the deal. "Paul simply goes out and gets it done. That's his reputation," says Leo V. Boyle, who represented the family of Del Valle, the 39-year-old woman who died in the tunnel collapse. "Paul gets the big cases, and then he gets them done. That's what it's all about in mediation. It's not the cases you get, it's the cases you finish."

Here's how mediation works: In a civil dispute, going to trial is always risky. Verdicts can either force defendants to pay astronomical amounts or leave plaintiffs without a penny. And so people often decide they'd rather settle -- if they can agree on a price. The parties then choose a mediator -- both sides must agree on the person -- and the process begins, behind closed doors, with both sides stating their cases and demands. Then the mediator separates the two sides into different rooms and begins shuttling back and forth between them. If mediation fails, the parties can agree on another mediator, or the case goes to trial.

Just two decades ago, it wasn't much of a business. But as fewer cases go to trial -- since 1992, civil trials have declined by 75 percent in the nation's busiest courts -- mediation has seen a surge in popularity. Why go to trial, the thinking goes, if a settlement can be quietly, and often quickly, achieved? (What happens in a mediation is confidential by law. Mediators are prohibited from speaking about specifics -- Finn, for instance, won't discuss what cases he has pending or what might be coming up.) But for all the potential benefits, just how well the process goes often depends on one individual -- the person running the negotiations.

"Some mediators act as messengers, going back and forth between the two sides," says William Dailey Jr., a partner at the Boston law firm Sloane and Walsh, who represented the construction companies sued after the death of Del Valle. "They don't weigh in. 'Confront' is too strong a word. But they don't try to work the process."

Other mediators, lawyers say, don't take enough time to understand a case, which makes it harder to shake opposing sides out of entrenched positions. And then there are the mediators who simply cannot relate to the parties in the room. "Some people are great at connecting with victims and can't connect at all with the senior-level executives who control the money in a case," says Patrick Jones, a personal injury lawyer who represented many of The Station fire victims. "Other people are just the opposite. They consider themselves peers of the executives -- they're high-profile lawyers -- and can't connect with the client who has the injury."

Paul Finn has none of these problems.

THe first thing you notice about him is that he's nothing like a lawyer. He doesn't watch what he says or how he says it. Finn speaks plainly, uses no jargon, and curses -- a lot. "He's got a gunfighter kind of sharpness about him," says Olan Horne, one of the victims in the 2003 sex-abuse case. "He doesn't waste a lot of frivolous moves. He's very focused." But there's also a mischievous twinkle in Finn's eye, as if he knows something you don't. He's a Scotch drinker, a story spinner, a joke teller -- and the jokes are often at his own expense. Like the one about how he started losing his hair in his mid-40s, so on his 50th birthday, nine years ago, he shaved it off. "I basically spent the first 50 years of my life getting by on my good looks, and I figured I'd see if I could get by for the next 50 on my personality," he says. "So then people say, 'How's that going?' And I say, 'Not very good.' "

He was born in Hyde Park in August 1949, the fourth of five children, and attended Boston Latin School, where his classmates included two future House speakers -- Robert DeLeo and Thomas Finneran. Among such people, Finn says, he never felt as if he measured up academically. While some used their senior yearbook to sign off with grandiose quotes ("Sans Dieu, rien," wrote one student -- "Without God, nothing"), Finn signed off with this: "If I could only think like I eat." He went to Stonehill College in Easton, earned his law degree from the New England School of Law in 1976 attending classes at night, and then set up shop with friend Bob Berks in Brockton, where they practiced law together for the next 15 years, handling everything from criminal defense to child custody cases. In 1992, Finn got approval from his law partners to take over their fledgling mediation business and ultimately bought them out. Finn, who's divorced with no children, thought the business had a chance, and, as it turned out, he was well-suited for the job.

"Paul has a Columbo-type approach to mediation," says Bob Sherman, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig, a Boston law firm that has represented clergy-abuse victims, referencing the plain-talking television cop from the 1970s. "He appears to be a 'dees,' 'dem,' and 'doze' kind of guy, and it's easy to underestimate him. But he's an extraordinarily smart and shrewd individual who's the finest reader of people that exists. And that's a skill that allows him to enjoy equal confidence from diametrically opposed parties."

His cavalier style puts people at ease in uneasy situations. Irish jokes, Catholic jokes, whatever -- he'll tell them, often right in the middle of tense negotiations. "He walks into the room, throws his notebook on the table, and just starts telling it," says Sherman, who's heard plenty of Finn's punch lines over the years. "And you find yourself, at the end, laughing hysterically." Which is the point. And then there's the swearing. Jay Lynch, a civil litigator with offices in Boston, Easton, and Providence, recalls warning Finn once to tone down his language in front of some conservative executives meeting him for the first time. Of course, Finn didn't listen. "And they loved him," Lynch says. "They absolutely loved him."

On style alone, however, Finn wouldn't have gotten far. In mediations, lawyers need someone with a sharp legal mind who's not afraid to nudge, push, and just plain tell people when they're wrong, and Finn has never had a problem with any of that. He's tenacious, lawyers say, working the phones if the initial meeting fails to produce a deal and cajoling parties back to the table.

"Paul is the best I've seen at staying with a case and pursuing it," says Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., who has represented the Archdiocese of Boston in hundreds of sex-abuse cases in the past decade.

Finn's big break came in 1992, just months after leaving his law practice, when he mediated a Fall River case involving a priest named James Porter and 68 victims he had allegedly abused. The $5 million settlement gave Finn credibility. More abuse cases followed. But it wasn't until he mediated the priest sex-abuse case involving the Boston Archdiocese and 552 victims that Finn truly earned the reputation that keeps bringing him work.

That fight was a mediator's nightmare. There were dozens of plaintiffs' attorneys on one side and the Catholic Church on the other. Victims were angry, and reporters were circling. In the middle, Finn felt alone. At one point, frustrated by both sides, he quit. But he came back, holing up one last time with the parties, including then Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, and finally the two sides agreed on a deal. Berks, Finn's longtime law partner who assisted in the final stressful hours of the talks, was particularly struck that night by how O'Malley turned to Finn at one point, asking for guidance.

"That's a moment I shall never forget as long as I live," Berks says. "As best I can remember it, O'Malley said, 'What should I do, Paul?' First name. 'What should I do, Paul?' "

Finn's practice, busy before that, has grown even busier since then. Attorneys, particularly those with complex cases, keep coming to him. In 2006, in the wake of The Station fire, attorneys turned to Finn, and he got the job done. In 2007, after another mediator failed to settle the case involving the Del Valle family, Finn was hired and got the job done yet again. Today, Finn and his partner Brian Mone are usually juggling some 10 cases at any one time (Finn has mediated or arbitrated more than 6,000 cases). That's a lot of conference rooms to shuttle in and out of. And a lot of stories by Finn to break the tension.

His latest goes something like this: He was on a plane in January, flying to Atlanta, when an engine failed; the plane was going to have to make an emergency landing. The woman next to him grabbed his hand and began to pray. Finn was convinced the MD-80 was going down. "At first I was nervous," he says. "And then I was really pissed off." It occurred to him that he still had more golf left to play, more drinks left to drink, and more work left to do.

Once safe on the ground -- the plane landed just fine -- Finn began telling the story to just about everyone. "Ever been on a plane that's lost an engine?" he would say and then launch into the story, joking about the things lawyers in his pending mediations might have said had the flight ended differently: "Jeez, Paul Finn died in a plane crash. We've got a trial coming up. Can we get someone else?" He laughs. But it is

the story of a man who loves what he does and does not want it to end, a man who's convinced he's helping people. "Otherwise," he says, "what's my relevancy?"

Globe staff writer Keith O'Brien is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at kobrien@globe.com.

AFTER TRAGEDY, RESOLUTION

Paul Finn reflects on his three most high-profile mediation cases:

Boston clergy sex abuse

Settlement $85 million

After the scandal, which led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law (left), one key to settling was the decision that both sides stop talking to each other for a while. "It got so intense that in the last week of August [2003], I called a five-day vacation," Finn says. "Everyone was on everyone else's nerves."

The Station fire

Settlement $176 million

A cameraman's video footage, which begins before the fire started, still haunts Finn. "This was way before Great White had come out," he says. "He takes a picture of the crowd. And you see all these wonderful kids and people having a great time. And you know -- this is the tragic part about it -- you know that within a half-hour, they're all going to be dead."

Big Dig ceiling collapse

Settlement $28 million

There were more than a dozen defendants in the case involving the death of Milena Del Valle. And from the start, they were fighting with one another about who was responsible, Finn says. But he tried to boil the debate down to a simple question: Was someone negligent? "What I learned from the Valle case," he says, "is that no matter how complex a case may be, it can be reduced to a simple common denominator."

-- Keith O'Brien