Michael J. Roberts of ADR Services, Inc. explains what it takes to be a mediator.
First, please tell me what you do.
I help people and companies settle legal disputes out of court in the areas of business, construction, real estate, employment, and insurance.
And how did you get into mediation?
I was an attorney in private practice of law for over 20 years. I had specialized in the areas of business, construction, employment, and real estate law. In the mid ‘80’s, the American Arbitration Association (AAA) wanted to start a mediation program and selected a number of lawyers and retired judges to be trained as mediators. At that time, mediation was virtually an unknown process. The AAA brought out a trainer from New York and spent three days training us to be mediators. After receiving the training, I started mediating cases for the AAA and giving speeches at legal seminars on the benefits of mediation. Within a few years, I began to be appointed by the courts as a mediator in construction defect cases and started mediating privately along with practicing law. By the early 90’s, my mediation practice had grown to the point where I left the practice of law and became a full time mediator.
Can you describe a particularly interesting case you’ve mediated recently?
Yes, a dispute among brothers and sisters over the division of a vast real estate empire created by their parents. Not only did the case involve technical real estate and tax issues, but strong feelings of animosity among the parties that had been brewing for decades and threatened to destroy their family relationships. Over many months, there were numerous full-day mediation sessions. In the end, the parties not only achieved a full resolution of their legal dispute, but were also able to reconcile their personal differences and celebrated with a large party on the last day of mediation. (Yes, the mediator was invited).
I’m guessing it’s not always that interesting. What does a typical day look like for you?
Generally, I’m in mediation sessions three or four days a week. The mediations typically go for a full day starting at approximately 9:00 a.m. Sometimes mediation may be scheduled for half a day starting in the morning or in the afternoon. There’s no telling how long a mediation session will last, and they often continue long into the night. At the end of the mediation session, I help the lawyers draft an interim agreement setting forth the terms of the settlement. Most cases settle in a day or less although particularly complex cases or those with numerous parties may go through multiple mediation sessions over many months. On the days when mediation is not scheduled, I spend the day on the phone following up with attorneys, insurance adjusters, and parties trying to resolve those cases that didn’t settle at the end of a mediation session.
What do you think are important attributes of a good mediator?
Mediators come in all shapes and sizes with different personalities and approaches. Some are aggressive in their approach. Some are more facilitative in their approach. Some start out being more facilitative and gradually become more aggressive depending on the needs of the case or the parties. However, in the end, the marketplace demands mediators who get results and achieve settlements. To be a good mediator, you have to have good communication skills, good negotiation skills and vast experience in the areas you are mediating. You must be fully prepared when you come into mediation, be tenacious in your efforts to achieve settlement, and never give up just because settlement seems difficult to achieve. If a case doesn’t settle at mediation, the parties expect a mediator who follows up and continues settlement efforts after the mediation.
So, let’s say I think I have those attributes. What steps would I need to take to become a mediator?
There is no easy or established path. In California, there are far more mediators than cases to be mediated. While, I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying, it’s not an easy path. First you need mediation training. There are a number of colleges and other organizations that offer mediation training or degrees in dispute resolution. Pepperdine University is one of the leaders in the field. Here in San Diego, the National Conflict Resolution Center offers excellent mediation training courses. A good source of finding mediation training in your area is www.mediate.com.
Once you have the training, you need some real mediation experience under your belt. This is the hard part. Unless you have some special expertise, you’re not likely to be hired. Parties in a dispute generally want someone known to be an expert in the field that is being mediated or who has the reputation of settling cases. The best experience can be obtained by serving as a volunteer mediator. While the National Conflict Resolution Center uses volunteer mediators, generally there are far more applicants than there are cases to mediate. The various organizations that offer mediation services are numerous and range from board of realtors to church organizations. A general Internet search for “mediation services” will provide you with lots of potential leads.
While it’s not necessary to be a lawyer, the primary marketplace for mediation is in the legal arena. To mediate these types of cases, being a lawyer is a prerequisite. I often get calls from attorneys who ask me how they can become mediators. I generally tell them that there is no easy way, but you need to start with training then talk to everyone in your network about letting you mediate some cases for them. Even judges who have retired from the bench find the process of getting the experience and building a mediation practice takes time — at least three years.
What are some of the perks of being a mediator?
While you can make a good living being a mediator, there is no greater feeling than the satisfaction you get from helping people resolve a dispute. Often you can see the look of relief on their faces when you are able to announce “a settlement has been reached.”
How about a few words of advice for someone considering a career as a mediator?
Make sure you have a “passion” for this work. While it is extremely gratifying, it can be emotionally draining. The commitment must be there.