Litigation, Mediation and Arbitration : What’s the Difference?

Although many people think of legal disputes as issues that play out in front of a judge or jury, most cases are resolved outside of the courtroom, using alternative dispute resolutions such as mediation or arbitration. If you are facing a difficult legal problem, it is vital to fully understand your options and how each type of dispute resolution works. Whether you’re dealing with a contract dispute or need help with a divorce, an experienced attorney can explain the benefits and drawbacks of litigation, mediation and arbitration and advise you on the best course of action to get your legal matter successfully resolved.


In litigation, an action is brought by before a court of law by the involved parties to find resolution from a judge or jury. The court process can be time consuming, stressful and costly, so most individuals and businesses prefer to avoid litigation and settle matters through alternative dispute resolution methods. However, it is important to keep in mind that ADR methods like arbitration and mediation are often used in conjunction with litigation. In fact, some states require that certain types of lawsuits go through mediation or arbitration before putting them on the trial calendar to avoid clogging the court system.

Arbitration vs. Mediation

Arbitration and mediation both use neutral third parties to manage the legal process. Binding arbitration is similar to the trial process, but is more informal and takes less time. An arbitrator’s role is similar to the role of a judge. Typically, each side gets to select an arbitrator. These two arbitrators choose a third arbitrator, and the dispute is presented to all three. They review and make determinations based on evidence and present written opinions, which may be binding or non-binding. Final decisions are reached by majority vote.

Mediation usually involves one mediator who helps facilitate discussion and negotiations to achieve resolution of a dispute. Mediation is quite popular and because it is a faster, more affordable option than litigation. Its success rate is high because the parties are brought together in a confidential, relaxed environment where they can openly present their positions in front of an impartial third party. It is a human thing to want to “get things off your chest” and mediation allows both parties to do this, which can help provide a more balanced perspective and lead to less hostility.

A mediator does not make a judgment or final decision. When the parties reach an agreement, they put the terms in writing and sign the document, creating a binding contract. Contract attorneys also recommend that before entering mediation to resolve a dispute, both parties sign a pre-mediation contract that addresses confidentiality, cost of the mediator, length of time and other issues. Divorce lawyers often use mediation to help clients avoid costly, contentious court battles, which can help them resolve issues quickly and put less stress on the family.

Interested in learning more about which option may be right for you?  Our law firm in West Chester can help.