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Episode 81 — Kenneth Feinberg — What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11

"You have to exhibit empathy, but you have to exhibit empathy in other ways than mouthing cliche or something like that." - Kenneth Feinberg

  • What was the emotional impact of administering the 9/11 Compensation Fund?
  • What are the main responsibilities of a mediator?
  • How do great leaders deal with pushback?
  • Why does the American legal system approach tort law differently with certain individuals?

Man in the Middle: Origins of a Mediator

Kenneth Feinberg has been described as an attorney who "has appeared at nearly every scene of tragedy and disaster in the US in the past two decades" by the Financial Times. From 9/11 to the BP oil spill, Kenneth has been at the heart of some of the biggest social catastrophes in modern history. He has faced an abundance of loss and sadness, yet has balanced the course of justice through financial reparations.

While he claims to have fallen into mediation by accident, once asked to mediate the agent orange situation over in Vietnam, he soon found his feet and what followed has been a storied career. Through his many bittersweet successes, Kenneth has written two books, one of which has been adapted into a film. Featured on Netflix in 2020, the motion picture “Worth” unpacks the processes Kenneth had to face when supporting the victims of 9/11. The film features high-profile figures such as Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.

Even with the recognition brought on through media prominence, Feinberg never views his successes as “justice,” but rather “mercy” — and while situational factors are irreversible, Kenneth does everything in his power to hopefully bring long-awaited relief.

A Shoulder to Cry On: Approaching Empathy

Dealing with the bereaved is never an easy endeavor. Nothing you say can be up to the task. Early in his career, Feinberg attempted to console a grieving father by saying, "I know how you feel" which was met with the response, "Don't ever tell someone like me you know how I feel." By attempting to empathize through shared emotion, Kenneth realized he had to find another way to relate to clients dealing with loss. Offering financial certainty can bring a glimmer of hope to those who struggle, and providing support can make a world of difference. Through resilience and willingness to succeed, he's managed to win settlements exceeding billions of dollars throughout his career.

Not Just a Suit: Heart Behind the Job

Kenneth states that “there's a lot of personality involved in being an effective mediator.” It takes a huge emotional investment to work in proximity to so much grief. Many involved in the 9/11 Compensation Fund were left angry and unsatisfied with the process. In an interview with Damien Carrick, Feinberg says those involved often asked, "Why did the government let us down?" But even when dealt a difficult hand, Kenneth has produced magnificent results across an illustrious career.

In our discussion, Kenneth draws on the overriding emotional element of his job, the success stories, the heartbreaking details, and the limitations that the legal system often presents.

Key takeaways:

  • Empathize: Understanding and appreciating the emotions of those around you goes a long way.
  • Structured Approach: Resolving conflict comes in many forms.
  • Equality: Equality comes from placing everyone on the same pedestal.

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