Mediation career myth-busting: 5 urban legends it's time to debunk

Mediation career urban legendsEver since the publication of a Forbes article that named mediation to its list of “America’s Most Surprising Six-Figure Jobs“, I’ve been inundated with emails from mediator-hopefuls eager to stake a claim to all that cash. Troubling to me, many of them hold mistaken notions about mediation as a profession and about qualifications to mediate. To help them, and save them and me time, I’ve decided to use this post to gather some persistent myths about careers in mediation and then swiftly dispatch them. Readers are of course welcome to add and then debunk in the comment section their own favorite urban legends about mediation practice.

24 (or 30 or 40) hours of training is all you need to become a mediator.

No, it’s not. A mediation training serves as an introduction to basic concepts: conflict behavior; a framework for negotiating; communication and conflict management skills; and ethical issues, just to name a few topics. It is an orientation to the profession, not an instant qualification. At that point you know enough to be dangerous but not enough to be good at it. Consider for example other occupations – therapist, accountant, electrician. Would you hire someone who had only 30 or 40 hours of training to help you through a difficult personal transition, give you tax advice for your business, or rewire your house? I didn’t think so. A well-conceived, well-run mediation training conducted by skilled mediators who are effective teachers serves as a sound introduction to mediation; it provides a foundation for the hard work ahead. But it’s a beginning and not an ending point. Beyond that first mediation training, it takes additional education and advanced training, including supervision by experienced practitioners over the course of dozens of cases, to develop the capacity to mediate effectively. Please read an article I’ve written about this, “Preparing mediators for practice: mediation training or mediation education?“.

Lawyers are already qualified to mediate by virtue of their profession and need little if any mediation training.

At the ABA Section on Dispute Resolution Spring Meeting in New York City in April, I attended a presentation on careers in ADR. I winced when I heard one of the panel members reassure the audience that lawyers automatically make great mediators since they already know a lot about negotiation. Not so. As a matter of fact, most people – and that includes lawyers – have little if any formal training in negotiation theory and skills, despite the fact that negotiating is something we all do daily. Moreover, the kind of negotiation that many lawyers are familiar with is traditional distributive, value-claiming bargaining and not the integrative, value-creating negotiation that mediation offers. In fact, given the adversarial nature of the practice of law, drilled into lawyers like me beginning with our first day of law school, lawyers who become mediators face the challenge of adapting to a practice based not on advocacy but on collaborative problem solving. Over the years, I’ve taught a lot of lawyers and judges to mediate; mediation is seldom second nature to my brothers and sisters at the bar and bench. It takes time to learn to develop new habits or retool finely honed skills to use in new contexts. For more discussion, read “You be the judge: do retiring justices make the best neutrals?

Lawyers always make the best mediators (or, alternatively, only lawyers can be mediators).

I’ve addressed that one here. Exceptional mediators come from a wide range of occupations and backgrounds. Some are lawyers; some are not. No one occupation serves as automatic guarantee of mediation talent.  Nor is a law degree or bar card required for private practice as a mediator. Let me be clear: mediation does not constitute the practice of law (PDF). However, several caveats: be aware that some disputes do require subject matter expertise, and certain panels demand specific qualifications or experience, which may include legal expertise or a bar admission. Be aware, too, that in some jurisdictions mediators may be limited with respect to the kinds of services they can provide and must take care to avoid engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. Before you hang out your shingle, educate yourself about mediation in the state where you plan to practice.

Online training in mediation is a great way to get certified as a mediator.

A web search for online mediation training will yield numerous results – there are plenty of programs out there. Although I am willing to be proved wrong, I think they’re a big waste of money and time. In fact, I cannot imagine why someone would want to learn to mediate this way. Here’s what I wrote two years ago (and I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me to revise my opinion):

Online training for mediators warrants a special caveat. I have said this before and it is worth repeating: online mediation training which purports to prepare students for face-to-face mediation is not worth your time and money…If you’re thinking about getting training in mediation, please be aware that great mediation training is highly experiential and interactive, reinforcing the concepts of collaboration and teamwork. Acquisition of learning is achieved through interpersonal interaction–through class discussions, multi-party exercises, and role-playing. It’s a very much hands-on experience to get students in touch with the deeply interpersonal dynamics of mediation itself.

I would therefore caution you about mediation trainings offered as correspondence or distance learning courses which students complete online and at their own pace with no interaction with other students. A mediation correspondence course which affords no opportunity for face-to-face and group interaction with coaches and fellow students is simply no substitute for the real thing.

There’s another big drawback to online training in mediation: your first mediation training represents your very first network of contacts, support, and potential referral sources or even future business partners in the ADR field. If you do your basic mediation training online, you’ll miss that important first opportunity to build real-world connections, particularly ones close to where you live and work.

By the way – and this is an important point here – watch out for the word “certified” and be careful about training program claims about mediator “certification” – you can read more about that here. At the time I write this, public licensing or certification for mediators in private practice does not exist anywhere in the U.S.

I can make big money as a mediator – right after I finish my 30-hour training.

Like the suspicions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, this is one urban legend that just won’t die. No, you can’t. If you doubt me, then please read this: “Too many mediators, not enough mediations: is it fair to keep training neutrals with career prospects so grim?” Can you succeed in a career in mediation? Yes. But it takes hard work, effort, a sound business and marketing plan, a little luck, and a substantial investment in time. Building a profitable practice won’t happen overnight. And it won’t happen until long after your first mediation training is over.  While we’re on the subject of money, I do have an observation to make. As a mediation trainer, I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years who wanted to be mediators. It used to be that what motivated people to become mediators were things like the desire to do good or to be of service; or, in the case of the many lawyers I’ve worked with, to regain career satisfaction or find a saner way to help people resolve problems. But lately, judging from the emails I’ve gotten these days, the emphasis is less on idealism and more on naked economic ambition. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making money as a mediator. In fact, I believe we should oppose institutional forces that seek to devalue our services. But if all you care about is the cash and not the clients, I have to wonder why you’re bothering.

Update:

My friend and colleague Tammy Lenski, who blogs at Making Mediation Your Day Job has debunked one more urban legend: “You say you’re a certified mediator. Says who?” This is a must-read post that clears up the confusion about the issue of mediator certification.

19 responses to “Mediation career myth-busting: 5 urban legends it's time to debunk

  1. Charles A. Kerr II

    Your article is right on target. I completed my basic 40 hours in June 1986 and subsequently was certified after a rigorous practicum. I particularly agree with your comments on lawyer mediators. Their lawyer training teaches them to be adversaries.
    And, to be mediators they have to learn to be neutral. As a human behavorist and working with attorney mediators this is most difficult.
    Retired judges were the worst.
    I took the mediation process into the State prison in Monroe, WA. It was a first in the history of peneology. It was an interesting experience. Of 118 offenders going through the BMT nine were certified after a one year long practicum and two I would rate as outstanding mediators who finally were assisting in the BMTs.
    I retired from the prison program after 14 1/2 years and now mediation is in many prisons throughout the world.

  2. Diane Levin

    Charles, thanks for your take on this. And very interesting to hear of your experience with a ground-breaking prison mediation program. You must have learned a lot teaching that program and working with that population. Great life skills for anyone to have.

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  4. Diane, this is an excellent and accurate list — good for you for raising these up for scrutiny.

    I’ve added one more to your list at my post, “You say you’re a certified mediator. Says who?”

    http://mediatortech.com/you-say-youre-a-certified-mediator-says-who/

  5. Thank you for the great article! In my jurisdiction, Oklahoma, you can be a “qualified,” but not “certified,” mediator after 24 hours of training and observing two mediations. Not only is this a bare bones training, there are no trainer requirements or qualifications. Training quality is all over the map. There are many folks, lay and attorneys, wasting a lot of time and money on becoming a “qualified” mediator and quickly discovering they are not. Thanks for the great blog!

  6. John, thanks for your kind compliment, and also for the sobering perspective from Oklahoma. You’ve put your finger on one of the biggest problems – the lack of oversight for mediation trainers. It’s the same issue here in Massachusetts – and, like in your state, training quality is all over the map. Really appreciate hearing from you!

  7. Wisconsin too has relaxed requirements for mediator certification. 40 hours and you’re done. I knew walking out of my certification that I was nowhere near ready to do a formal mediation. Observation, research (including paying attention to sites like this one), and finding opportunities to co- mediate with someone more experienced have really helped. Especially the last one because then you get real, practical feedback about everything from the actual negotiation to what is being conveyed through your own body language.

  8. Diane Levin

    Angela, this is true across the US. Sounds as if Wisconsin’s experience is no different from anywhere else. The big question though is how to improve mediator quality? The current system fails us all, mediator and consumer. FYI to my readers, I see that the Wisconsin Association of Mediators offers a private process for “certification” for members – not to be confused with public licensing or credentialing – who meet certain not particularly rigorous criteria. WAM notes on a PDF uploaded to its site that there is no “certification” of mediators in Wisconsin.

  9. Diane. Thanks for this wonderful piece. It is important for mediators to know that it is not an overnight success. Nothing good is. I started mediating in 1999 and it took many years to even remotely become successful. I think you have to think of it like any business. 90 something percent of businesses fail within 2 years. Then another portion within 5 years. You have to treat it like a business — Capital, Committment, and Caring. You need the capital, you need to make the committment, and you have to care about the product you provide.

    I wouldn’t hire a plumber or mechanic with 40 hours of training. What makes anyone think that people would hire mediators with that much training.

  10. Diane Levin

    Steve, I appreciate your comment about your own experience. Thanks for emphasizing the business side of mediation practice – something that too many newcomers to the practice of mediation overlook.

  11. Diane, you’re right on! Having mediated disputes for over 30 years, I’ve come to believe that even supposedly “trained” mediators may be worthless. Like lawyers today, mediators should not take on matters where they have little or no experience. Credentials are fine and perhaps essential in today’s world (I got mine a few years ago from Pepperdine), but experience is what really counts, as well as the temperament to listen. It can’t be learned overnight.

  12. Mitch, really appreciate your comment. Yours is certainly the voice of experience – 30 years! Thanks for visiting and for taking time to share your views.

  13. Dustin Curtis

    Mediation as a career is not for everyone. There is so much that can never be learned in a classroom, online or anywhere else, except by living . One thing I have noticed is that there are many mediators claim the title, but most have very little life experience. Life experience is where the true training for mediation is. Look at your grandparents and you will see many years of resolving all types of “conflicts”. Many times they used all the skills that the schools try to teach. Life’s lessons are the best mediation instructors.

  14. Dustin, I appreciate your comment. I agree that life is a great teacher and that real-world experience is highly instructive. With respect to the importance of life experience, you can make say that life experience is important as a foundation for many other kinds of professions – education, law, medicine, psychology, social work, business. Life experience is invaluable and no doubt can contribute to one’s success as a physician, an entrepreneur, a lawyer, therapist, or a mediator.

    But personally I’d hate like hell to see “life experience” as the sole requirement for entry into the field or for any special weight to be given to it. As a mediation trainer, I’ve seen college students with greater innate skills as peacemaker than people in their 70’s with decades of “life experience” under their belts. In fact, some of those highly experienced folks have many years of bad habits to break. In my own case, my own life experience didn’t much help me in becoming a mediator; in fact, I think it got in the way. I had law school training and my litigator’s instincts to overcome after all.

    Thanks, Dustin – really appreciate it!

    P.S. You’re fortunate that you evidently had grandparents who were skilled conflict resolvers. I love all four of my grandparents, all, alas dead for many years now, but none of them, despite the other fine qualities they possessed, could have mediated their way out of a paper bag.

  15. As a person interested in a mediation career (and not because of the Forbes article), what would you recommend to me for appropriate education/training in the field?

  16. Jan, I’m going to ask you to read this post first and then let me know if you still have questions. Thanks so much.

  17. Victoria Moreno-Jackson

    Hi Diane!

    I was speaking with a colleague, who works for a CMC in the MD state system, on Tuesday. He had just been observed mediating as part of a new mediator certification process. I’m intrigued by the description. The main website is http://www.mcdr.org/, and there’s a link on the left “Certification Process.” Requirements to be evaluated are 40 hours of training and 1 year experience (not defined), and the evaluation consists of a written evaluation and scored, observed role play.

    I know that MD and NY have been working evaluating mediators in a meaningful, systematic way, and I’m definitely interested in seeing how this works.

    • Victoria, hello! Thanks for the news and the link – will check it out. And happy new year to you!

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