Ever 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.

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. 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.. 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.


By Diane Levin – July 15, 2009