I have had the pleasure of working as a lawyer-peacemaker for more than 20 years in many capacities, including as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) case manager, court ADR administrator, adjunct professor, and now Mediator for the International Monetary Fund. Here are a few things I wish I had known about the field when I first started.
1. Practice law for a few years before entering the field. Unlike many “recovering litigators” or retired judges who join the field of dispute resolution after years of practice or serving on the bench, I landed a job right after law school with a company that custom designed ADR for clients. Once I saw the power of ADR to bring efficient and meaningful resolution to contentious disputes, I became enamored with it and have never, to this day, practiced law. My lack of legal experience negatively impacted my ability to successfully establish a private mediation practice, however, or to be considered for the roster of a large dispute resolution company. When interviewing with a dispute resolution provider, I was told that I “had not yet earned my stripes.” So, if your ultimate goal is to have a robust private mediation practice, a long and distinguished legal career gives you greater credibility with the bar.
2. Explore careers in dispute resolution. My initial exposure to ADR was working in an administrative capacity and as a community mediation center volunteer. I did not get to mediate very often, and when I did, it was for free. Today, there are an increasing number of excellent jobs available in dispute resolution. Universities, hospitals, international organizations, and large corporations are hiring ombudspersons to address internal conflict. Federal and state agencies hire in-house mediators to staff mediation programs that address employment disputes. Conflict resolution specialists are being sought to provide conflict coaching, large group facilitation, ADR system design, and conflict competency training.
3. Find your specialization. Identify a niche in which to focus your dispute resolution practice. Although mediation skills are applicable in all case types, it is best to develop your focus in a specific area, such as divorce, medical malpractice, or employment. When I began trying to develop a private mediation practice, I held myself out as a generalist. Unfortunately, this approach was not very successful. It was much easier to market my services and develop a strong client base once I finally began narrowing my mediation practice to family and employment matters.
4. Be strategic in training. There is no requirement of licensure to mediate anywhere in the United States; however, many states have certification requirements to mediate court-referred matters. Learn what the requirements are in your state and acquire such credentials—they will allow you the opportunity of being on a roster and will indicate that you have some requisite level of training and experience. As there are a number of training courses offered around the country, do your research and invest in a training program that is approved by your state certifying agency and that offers high-caliber, experienced trainers with a reputable organization.
5. Treat the development of your dispute resolution practice as a business. When I started my private practice, I never had a plan or a website, and I relied on my contacts to find opportunities. This led to a very slow practice. Create a business plan and marketing strategy integrating technology and social media. Identify what makes you special and what you offer that is unique from other practitioners. I am of Indian origin, but initially I did my best to fit in as opposed to drawing attention to my cultural background. Once I began embracing my differences, I found an array of wonderful opportunities open up, including helping to establish one of the first court-connected mediation programs in India. A final tip: Make the most of professional associations. Join the ABA Dispute Resolution Section as well as local ADR organizations in your community. I found that once I began getting more active with the ABA and started building relationships, I had greater visibility, I built credibility in the ADR community, and I became part of shaping the field that I care so much about.