ADR ALL-STARS: Dispute resolution major leaguer Ericka Gray shares strategies for success

ADR All-Star Ericka Gray shares strategies and tips for successFrom time to time Online Guide to Mediation will offer interviews with ADR all-stars—individuals who have gained iconic status in the dispute resolution world, have contributed greatly to the advancement of the field, or are taking ADR practice in bold new directions. (Or who don’t necessarily meet any of the above criteria but just tell one heck of a good story.)

Here’s my first interview—this one with ADR All-Star Ericka Gray, who can definitely claim that she does all the above.

Ericka, tell my readers a little bit about yourself. What do you do in the ADR field?

I run my own company, DisputEd, in Arlington, Massachusetts, that provides mediation, facilitation, consulting, training, and dispute systems design services, as well as just about anything else related to conflict prevention, intervention and management. I also teach Mediation at Boston College Law School and Suffolk University Law School, teach Divorce Mediation at Northwestern University in Chicago, and generally keep very, very busy. And, yes, I coach, mentor, volunteer, serve on professional organization boards of directors, serve on the Massachusetts Trial Court Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution, and try to have a life outside of work.

You and I are both baseball fans. We know that stats matter. Tell us how you long you’ve been mediating, what kind of experience you’ve had, and how you got into the major leagues.

My mediation career started in 1985 when I was a psychologist for an HMO. A woman called and asked the intake person if we provided “divorce therapy”. The intake person, for some unknown reason, always headed the weird calls my way. Of course I said, “Well, we haven’t before, but why not? Come on in.”

That was the start of helping people figure out a better way of dealing with their conflicts. That couple ended up having an amicable divorce, figuring out a parenting plan, property division, etc., before I even knew there was such a thing as mediation.

Two years later I was employed full-time at the Burlington County Superior Court in New Jersey running a Multi-Door Courthouse (the fourth in the country), supervising more than 100 volunteer mediators, developing and managing mediation and other ADR programs in the courts, and having an absolute blast. I got that job because a friend of mine told me about it and said it sounded perfect for me – except I didn’t have a law degree, which it required. I figured I’d apply anyway – what was the worst they could do – not hire me?

Well, they saw it my way, and it was a great match. I was on the American Bar Association Multi-Door Courthouse speaking circuit with Melinda Ostermeyer and Kimberley Kovach, and, along with Larry Ray, we went around the country to various conferences talking about the concept and the realities of operating such programs. When the judge I was working for was going to retire and I was getting a divorce, I started looking at getting out of New Jersey. So, I asked around, and Margaret Shaw, who was hanging around my courthouse doing some research, told me about the startup Middlesex Multi-Door Courthouse (MMDC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I faxed my c.v. that day, and the next week I was on a plane to Boston for an interview.

And so I moved to Boston, where I knew no one, for a job that had 18 months of funding. I mediated just about every type of civil case there was which at MMDC. Well, funding kept getting extended but it was always iffy and I finally said enough was enough and headed on over to Endispute, which later became JAMS. At Endispute, Eric Green, Paddy Moore, Jack Wofford, Larry Susskind, Carmen Reiss, Marjorie Aaron, and a cast of characters you wouldn’t believe were mediating a variety of disputes, ranging from major environmental issues to personal injury cases to land use to construction to employment to intellectual property. It was a high-end boutique ADR firm with the best of the best and I was thrilled to be there. In addition to mediating, I was developing their training programs and putting some structure in the professional services side of things.

I must say, the opportunity to learn from such amazing talents probably can’t be duplicated today. To be able to co-mediate with Eric Green? Just incredible!

Anyway, as happens to companies, Endispute began rapid expansion and became a bit overextended. Investors came in and soon enough, Endispute became JAMS (which stands for Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services). Suddenly, the focus became hiring retired judges as independent contractors and settling personal injury cases—volume, volume, volume. What a culture clash.

So, I left to become the Executive Director of the Academy of Family Mediators. Now, talk about a job! A board of 12 volunteers, all mediators, all with different backgrounds, styles, beliefs, experiences in business, etc. I signed a 3-year contract and served as Board members such as Robert Benjamin, Peter Maida, Don Saposnek, and many others came through. Talks started with the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution (SPIDR) and other organizations about a merged ADR organization at the instigation of the Hewlett Foundation. At that point, I went out on my own, starting DisputEd.

So, to answer the question about how I got into the majors, the answer is that I’ve been in the right place at the right time, taken advantage of opportunities, and gotten to know a lot of people in the field.

We mediators love trading war stories (while of course at the same time honoring the confidentiality of our clients). What was your most memorable case ever? And how did you get it to resolution?

Oh my, this is tough since there have been so many memorable ones. And, some of the most memorable ones didn’t get to resolution. Lots of them involve animals for some reason – the slaughtered goat hanging from the front yard tree was one (religious reasons but the neighbors weren’t really happy about this – resolution was to move future slaughtered animals to the backyard tree and make sure that some type of fence or other covering surrounded it so the neighbors couldn’t see it).

The pig bite case was another. Then there was the pet goose that was attacked by a neighbor’s dog and needed hundreds of stitches but lived. The neighbor just laughed when asked to pay for the vet bills and did not want to mediate. You know, people are just so interesting an
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come up with all sorts of weird and unusual ways to get themselves into conflict. So, these will have to do for now or I’d have to write a book.

Lots of people want to get into the mediation business. Many are called, few are chosen. What advice would you give to all those sweet young things out there who want to make it in this field?

Mediation is a BUSINESS just like any other business. Not only that, it’s an entrepreneurial business. There is a very limited pool of jobs available and a huge pool of potential applicants for these jobs.

Most people who make it have several things in common: 1) They’re good! 2) They have an entrepreneurial spirit 3) They understand that a start-up mediation practice takes capital, marketing, networking, lots of hard work, lots of hours, paying your dues, and no one’s going to hand you paying business. Any new business generally takes from 3-5 years to show a profit. 4) Build on your strengths and your current knowledge and skills set. If you’re a human resources director, for example, you might concentrate on mediating workplace conflicts and marketing to fellow HR people, rather than trying to establish a practice mediating land use disputes. And 5) Hope for a good dose of luck. Look for opportunities. They don’t come looking for you!

Okay, most important question: How do you think the Red Sox are going to do this year?

This is an easy one. If they don’t get their bullpen in order, they just aren’t going to do it. Come on guys, get some real relievers and closers! Embree? Halama? Don’t make me laugh.

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