BECOMING A MEDIATOR: What you should know before you change careers

Mediation as a career exit strategy for attorneys[Update: since publishing this article, I have since revisited this topic. For information on becoming a mediator, including training and certification, please see “How to become a mediator: five frequently asked questions about training and careers in mediation“, as well as “Getting it straight: understanding mediator certification“.]

The American Bar Association’s Section of Litigation features a “Question of the Month” which attorneys are invited to respond to. June’s question asked, “Does your current practice match the career expectations you had in law school?”

An overwhelming 79% answered with a resounding “No”. The published comments from respondents reflect concerns about the increasing lack of respect that lawyers endure, the amount of stress generated by the pressure to meet billable hours, and even the incivility of other attorneys.

One respondent observed, “I did not expect the practice of law to be as lucrative as it has been for me, and I did not expect it to rip out my soul,” and another went so far as to say, “I am constantly considering career alternatives. Sometimes I even cast jealous glances at the guy driving the Frito-Lay delivery truck next to me at the stop light.”

As a mediation trainer, I have become accustomed to hearing these kinds of laments from members of the bar. I often meet or get phone calls from attorneys in transition, who see mediation as a way to add new services to an existing practice, or, more typically, are hoping to abandon the practice of law altogether to pursue a different line of work—one which they hope will bring greater (chiefly psychological) rewards.

And speaking as an attorney who left the practice of law a number of years ago and never looked back, mediation can indeed be vastly rewarding and deeply satisfying work.

However, whether you’re an attorney or you come from another profession entirely, you need to complete two important steps before making the transition to ADR:

Do your homework.

And get the best possible training.

Do Your Homework.

You need to understand something about the mediation field and know how realistic your goals are before transitioning to mediation as a new career.

Despite the fact that the world seems full of a seemingly infinite number of disputes, getting parties to the table can be tough. Not all disputes can be mediated for one thing. And for another, mediation still flies below the radar in terms of public awareness. More people today have heard of mediation, which is a good thing, but if there’s a dispute, people tend to call cops or lawyers first, not mediators. There are also a lot of mediators out there, all competing for a limited number of cases—you need to think about how you can distinguish your message from everyone else’s.

So, You Want to be a Mediator?”, an article by James Melamed, co-founder of, is a good place to begin your research. Jim offers plenty of recommendations, including two pieces of advice I like:

First, read everything you can get your hands on about mediation, including Peter Lovenheim’s book, Becoming a Mediator: An Insider’s Guide to Exploring Careers in Mediation, which offers a realistic perspective on careers and job opportunities in the mediation field.

Second, take a mediator to lunch. (Mediators, like everyone else, appreciate a free meal, and they will reward you for your generosity by sharing with you career advice and other pearls of wisdom.) In fact, make it a point to talk to as many mediators as possible, particularly in the practice area you’re interested in, to get as many perspectives and as much information as you can. Mediators can give you practical business advice, talk to you about the state of the field, and offer suggestions on training and education.

Get Training.

If you’re seriously thinking of transitioning to a career in the mediation field, you want to receive the best training possible. It’s an investment in your professional development, so don’t cut corners. Do your research—due diligence will pay off.

I wrote an article (one of my first posts ever) on what to look for in a basic mediation training. Just to boil down and refine somewhat my earlier thoughts, here’s my list of 5 things you should know before signing up for a mediation training:

1. KNOW THE STANDARDS. Know the qualifications standards for mediators in the state(s) you’re planning to practice in. How many hours of basic training are required? What are the requirements for the practice area you’re interested in?

2. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING. What will the mediation training qualify you to do? Find out what kinds of cases the training will prepare you to mediate and what applicable state standards it will help you meet. And definitely ask what style of mediation you’ll be taught—there are several. Bill Warters and Zena Zumeta have both written on the differences among these models.

3. KNOW WHO THE TRAINERS ARE. Get their bios. Find out what they do in the ADR field. They should be professionals with substantial training and experience, active on committees and professional associations, who have ideally held positions of leadership in the field. Accept no substitutes.

4. KNOW WHAT RESOURCES ARE AVAILABLE WHEN THE TRAINING IS OVER. A mediator’s education doesn’t end when the training is over. Find out what kind of mentoring, support, continuing education, and opportunities to mediate the training organization offers to trainees who have completed a mediation training.

5. KNOW THE HARD QUESTIONS. Be aware that one of the big controversies in the mediation field concerns credentialing and certification.

If a mediation training claims to confer “certification”, you need to find out what that means. Certification may mean something or it may mean nothing. For example, the State of New Hampshire certifies marital mediators who

ave completed certified marital mediation training provided by approved programs. Florida and Virginia are other states which have a system of certification for mediators. (My own state, Massachusetts, however, certifies neither mediators nor mediation training programs.)

In addition, just to really confuse things, some professional associations certify mediators. The Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation is one example. In that case what certification by a professional association means is that a practitioner has met requirements that the association has created for certain classes of its members.

To confuse things still further, some mediation training programs claim to offer “certification” trainings when they simply mean that participants receive a certificate of attendance upon successful completion of the training program, nothing more.

* * * * *

A final thought for attorneys who are seeking greater career satisfaction and a way to balance the demands of life and work. There are two resources you should look into:

Stop by the J.D. Bliss blog (motto: “Balancing Life and the Law”), a great web site which offers plenty of useful content, ranging from online resources to the real-life experiences of “Work Life Winners”.

Also, be sure to visit Renaissance Lawyer, featuring links and resources for attorneys looking for deeper meaning and purpose in the work they do.

No matter what you do, in exiting from one career to another, it’s important to plan your strategy carefully. Best of luck to all your career-changers.

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3 responses to “BECOMING A MEDIATOR: What you should know before you change careers

  1. Mobile Phones

    Hi Diane. Thanks for that post! I was pretty shocked at the statistics – 79% ? That’s a huge number. Some of the quotes you mentioned in your post are also pretty shocking and quite sad. I feel sorry for people under this kind of pressure… I know what it feels like. The pressure to perform amongst those in law must be really too much. And, I know, even when you’re on holiday you are under pressure. Although it is probably more lucrative than most expect, that kind of blessing becomes a curse when you never have the time (or the sound of mind) to just enjoy it. Especially when it comes to holidays etc. Sometimes a smaller home, and smaller car, but more holidays or times away is indeed the better way to live. I suppose you’ve got to see if you’re a quantity or quality person, but sooner or later people tend to see that time is not actually money, but a treasure in a league of its own altogether.

  2. Mobile Phones

    I read your article about certifications and notice that it seems certification is still rather provided by the private sector. How many universities etc. are thinking of making this career choice a part of their curriculum somewhat? I mean, do they mention it in law studies? How long do you think before it is recognised?Do you know how things are in other areas of the world, such as, England? Why I ask this is that it would be interesting to see what they do, or did, to get to where they are. Or if this career choice is primarily still in the states. I am not from the states, so I am interested in seeing how this is building across the world.

  3. Diane Levin

    That’s right, certification is still a matter for the private sector, with the exception of a few state courts that certify certain categories of mediators. Here in the U.S., many universities offer degree programs in conflict resolution. Woodbury College in Vermont offers a first-of-its-kind master’s degree program in mediation. And law schools throughout the U.S. today typically provide students with a range of offerings in ADR. Some law schools have even begun to fold negotiation and problem-solving skills into the core curriculum for law students. As far as England and the rest of the world is concerned, I’m afraid you’ll have to get in touch with mediators in those parts of the world to learn the degree to which ADR has been institutionalized and broadly accepted there. I do know that Australia has instituted a national credentialing system for mediators–to the best of my knowledge the first public, wide-scale system of its kind anywhere in the world. Thanks for your comments–it’s a real pleasure to hear from you!