What kind of work is there in the dispute resolution (DR) field?
DR professionals work in many different areas. To illustrate, the Association for Conflict Resolution has sections dealing with commercial, community, consumer, court, criminal justice, education, environmental/public policy, family, health care, international, ombudsman, online disputes, organizational conflict management, spirituality, training, and workplace issues.
What is the traditional DR career path?
There is no established DR career path as there is for other, well-established professions. People who are successful in this field usually have devoted a great deal of time to develop expertise, have recognized DR needs that others would be willing to pay for, have some marketing or other fundraising skills, have a lot of patience and determination, and usually some good luck. (For a story about how three people got work as DR professionals, see “Steep Path Awaits New Practitioners In Field” by Jennifer Thomas-Larmer.)
The most common way to practice as a mediator or arbitrator is to develop one’s own practice. Although the market has been growing, it is still relatively small and quite competitive. It helps if one has expertise in particular areas such as the areas listed above. Practitioners typically build practices over time and provide a combination of services such as training, consulting, and traditional legal or mental health services.
There is an increasing but still small number of jobs in which one is hired to serve as a mediator, often in a court or government agency. Some mediators are hired as employees and others as independent contractors. Typically these jobs require a lot of practical experience. A few organizations have panels of neutrals. Again, a substantial amount of experience is usually required.
A variety of organizations need administrators and those positions are generally less competitive. These organizations include private DR providers, community mediation programs, professional associations, courts, judicial councils, and state DR offices.
Working as inside counsel for businesses can provide good opportunities to use mediation to represent one’s firm. Although inside counsel don’t act as mediators, working as an inside counsel can be a very satisfying form of practice to promote problem-solving.
There is a growing (though again relatively small) number of academic positions focusing on DR in law schools and other academic programs. Law schools are usually looking for people to teach core courses such as first-year and bar courses and ADR may be an attractive “add-on” for some positions. Academic credentials are often especially important and practice experience can be important as well, particularly for clinical positions.
Do I need to be licensed to practice mediation, arbitration, or other forms of dispute resolution?
No. There is no licensing requirement for DR practice as there is with many professions, where it is illegal to practice without a license. Some states and mediation programs have developed their own certification systems for selection of DR practitioners. Even in such states, however, parties ordinarily can choose practitioners who are not certified. Nonetheless, certification provides some legitimacy and can be useful in marketing.
Do I need to be a lawyer to practice mediation, arbitration, or other forms of dispute resolution?
No. Some certification systems require a law degree, legal experience, or bar admission to receive referrals of certain cases. When lawyers hire mediators, however, the lawyers are often more comfortable hiring mediators with legal training and experience, especially if the case involves substantial legal issues. Mediators without legal training are generally more successful in developing practices outside the realm of court-connected mediation.
Will legal training make me a better mediator?
Yes and no. Lawyers are often good at gathering information, analyzing issues, predicting likely alternatives to an agreement, and identifying areas of possible agreement, which can be helpful in mediation. In addition, lawyers generally want their mediators to be lawyers. On the other hand, lawyers are often uncomfortable dealing with emotions and are generally used to giving advice and controlling things, patterns that can interfere with good mediation practice.
Is a 40-hour training enough to become a good mediator?
A training program is only one step to becoming a good mediator. Many courts or mediation programs require a certain number of hours of training as part of their certification requirements. Often this is 40 hours but it may be as low as 16 hours. These brief trainings provide the basic skills to get started especially when combined with relevant prior experience and skills. The level of competence required varies with the type and complexity of the problems involved. Often people who have completed training realize that mediation practice is more complex than they had originally anticipated.
Competence in mediation usually emerges out of practical experience, preferably with the guidance of experienced mentors. Students who want to become practitioners are well-advised to take advantage of externship and clinical opportunities. In addition to skills training and experience, it is important to develop a theoretical understanding of the field. The DR field is based on theories and concepts that are highly arguable and regularly superseded by new theories and concepts. Without a good theoretical understanding, practitioners are less effective and less able to adjust to the continuing evolution of the field.
Will a law school certificate or LLM degree in DR help me get a job?
Sometimes. A certificate or LLM degree can be a useful supplement to other qualifications for work in the DR field. It is unlikely that these credentials alone would qualify individuals for a job. Many of our LLM graduates are working in the DR field due to the combination of their experiences before enrolling and the DR education they received.
A certificate or LLM degree can provide two important benefits in addition to the value as credentials. First, they provide opportunities to learn about the field and develop understandings that may be helpful in getting and performing DR work. In addition, students get opportunities for contact with faculty that can lead to helpful recommendations. Often students do not appreciate the value of recommendations until after they finish their studies. To get the most useful recommendations, in addition to performing well in class, it is helpful to talk individually with faculty.
If I have a law degree, what can I do to develop a DR career?
New graduates may be wise to focus first on getting traditional legal experience to develop expertise in traditional legal skills and particular types of cases and to develop a network of professional friends who might later refer cases. When providing traditional representation services, one might look for opportunities to use DR procedures when it serves one’s clients’ interests. Representing clients in DR procedures is a valuable way to get DR experience. See goals and criteria for representation in mediation. Get experience by volunteering, for example, for a community or small claims mediation.
When one is ready to begin offering DR services, personal networking is particularly important. Referrals often come from former clients, other attorneys one knows (such as law school classmates), and other DR professionals. Like other professionals, DR professionals make referrals to others when, for example, the case is not in their area of expertise or they have a personal connection with a party or attorney. It is helpful to join DR groups such as the Association of Missouri Mediators or the Missouri Bar Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee. In general, it is useful to identify potential referral sources, i.e., people who often come in contact with people who might want one’s service. For example, in the family area, it is useful to contact therapists, clergy, accountants, or hairdressers. For business cases, one might contact accountants, financial advisors, and bankers.
It is also helpful to make some group contacts. Giving talks for local groups and writing articles in bar journals are time-honored ways to develop a practice. Developing a brochure may be very helpful for creating legitimacy and they can be distributed at talks.