In this blog series, Robin Phillips shared 10 Common (and Discouraging) Pieces of Advice Offered to New Dispute Resolution Practitioners she has received as a new law school grads receive regarding alternate dispute resolution as a first career. Nancy Cameron responded with encouragement for these new law school grads by debunking these 10 myths.
After reading both of these insightful blogs, I realized that these 10 myths also apply to graduates from other areas of study that similarly want to pursue a career in consensual dispute resolution from the start. These people also hear the same discouraging pieces of advice. For these (my) people, I address these myths (with some adjustments for a custom fit), and have added one just for them!
BONUS MYTH: One has to be a lawyer to be a mediator
Ok, so how about this: “One can be a mediator and not be a lawyer, but better to be a lawyer too.”
With all due respect to my brothers and sisters in this work who are Law Society members, it is no better or worse to be a lawyer than to have a different occupational background. It is just different.
I would expect one with a legal background to be stronger in regards to knowledge of the law. I would expect someone with a counseling background to be more effective in dealing with high conflict. I would expect someone with an accounting background to help all parties quickly understand the financial implications of their agreements. I would expect someone with more pure mediation training to be better at uncovering the deepest interests of the parties.
I have been inspired and mentored by mediators with and without law degrees. I work with both as well, and I can list great mediators that come from a wide variety of backgrounds. The field needs that variety. Our thinking is evolving to recognize that the industry is richer because of it.
Myth #1: Litigate for 10 years before mediating
Gaining understanding about the law and court processes as a litigator is useful when mediating disputes with legal implications, and the same can be said about others’ areas of experience. Working as a therapist for 10 years would give one valuable experience, wisdom and knowledge about what is happening for people in moments of stressful conflict. It might also make it easier to understand family systems and dynamics, which would be especially useful in family mediation.
Virtually every career could be enhanced by having experience in another field first. So how do you start on a career if you could be more effective in it by doing something else first? This logic leads to paralysis.
We all started somewhere, doing something – and became good at it.
I also believe that similar to litigation work, other occupations emphasize and value certain ways of thinking and behaving that must be “unlearned” to be an effective mediator. As Nancy points out, there is benefit in establishing the most effective neuropathways from the beginning!
Myth #2: You need a good reputation to get work, and you need work to build a good reputation
It is true that the better the reputation one has, the more work will come their way. The same can be said about most other career choices too. New mediators volunteer their expertise, teach when they can and partner with others.
Finding creative ways to get experience is not unique to mediation. It is also not a good reason to not try!
Myth #3: Grey hair equals credibility
Life and career experience can give comfort to potential clients. However, that is not the only way to gain credibility. Education, certification and other credentials go a long way to establish trust.
One benefit of starting in this field at a young age is that one can build up wisdom and knowledge over a longer period of time. There are very few mediators here in BC who have been doing it for more than 20 or 25 years. Imagine how the field can mature and evolve when we have a generation who has committed their careers to this work and all have 40 to 50 years of experience! Research, theory, practical methods, evaluation and public awareness would all be enhanced and taken to a new level.
More immediately, young mediators may have an advantage with access to certain demographics that older mediators would not. Some clients prefer professionals who are more closely connected to their “culture” (stage of life, values, interests, communication preferences, etc.). Where cultures are related to younger age groups (technology, pop culture, etc.), the young mediator will be comfortable and aware of the nuances of the cultural “language”, all of which builds trust in their clients.
What about online dispute resolution and other new and creative ways to approach the process? I expect that the bulk of our creativity and forward thinking will come from new mediators.
For the record, these ideas are generalizations, not every veteran mediator is out of touch with pop culture and not every young mediator is tech savvy. However, there are likely some differentiators that can be leveraged.
Myth #4: There is not enough work
This is the most challenging of the 10 myths. While the field is growing, mediators wish it were growing faster. We have some work to do to make people aware of the effectiveness (and even the existence) of better ways of handling conflict.
It is true that it takes time to build a mediation practice, just as it takes time to build virtually every other kind of business. It is not easy to start most careers; few things are automatically successful. Where mediation ranks on the list of “Most Difficult Careers to Develop”, I am not sure, but difficulty is not necessarily a reason to abandon its pursuit.
In his On Co-Mediation post, Ron Smith actually argues that more mediators will actually increase the overall awareness of the mediation process, meaning more clients for us to serve.
Myth #5: Don’t quit your day job
This is the advice I heard a lot when I was training to do this work. It is true that you will not make all the money you want to make when starting out, but what is the shame in having to do other things to support a growing practice?
Mediation is not the only occupation where one needs to gain other income as their “main” career gets established, and in some ways, younger people are better suited for this. They tend to have less financial obligations (spouse, children, elderly parents, mortgage, etc.) than those who are older (with the possible exception of student loans). Their costs of living are lower and their finances more flexible. These are the kind of people who best suit the entrepreneurial nature of a career in conflict resolution.
And even when the practice is running well, virtually all mediators have several aspects to their practices that contribute to its success (as Nancy suggests): Mediation, facilitation, teaching, training and coaching are all ways to engage with people, their conflict, and share your passion!
Two professional benefits also come to mind for those with several aspects to their dispute resolution practice:
1) Few people could mediate things like family separation every day all day, without burning out, and
2) Having several income streams can be a more stable business model than having just one.
Myth #6: The field of mediation is shrinking
Any industry has shifts and swings with regards to the size of the market. Mediation is the same. However, there seems to be a steady growth in awareness (even though we wish it were faster) and interest in mediation. More schools are training in it, and the laws are changing to emphasize it.
Over the long term, I believe that consensual dispute resolution will continue to grow, and I believe this to be true globally, not just in BC.
Myth #7: The rosters are full so there is no way to get work
Some of the rosters that drive work directly to mediators are difficult to get into, however, new rosters occasionally open up. It is possible to become part of these new rosters by being aware of new projects and partnerships. Mediate BC continues to be a main player in developing creative opportunities and the source for announcements of opportunities developed by others.
As well, rosters like the family and civil ones at Mediate BC do help to direct clients to its members. While maybe not always as directly as some other rosters, they still help to establish credibility for mediators qualified to join.
Myth #8: Females are at a disadvantage
I realize gender bias is a problem in many kinds of occupations, and I don’t know what it is like to be a female mediator. I do know that if one day my daughter wants to join me in this pursuit, I would support and encourage her all the way. (And I think she would be really good at it!)
Like in many places, we have some work to do to make it a more level playing field for everyone. If my little girl does decide to be a mediator one day, I hope that the landscape is different than it is today.
Myth #9: No one can mediate and litigate
Not being a lawyer, it is hard for me to comment on this.
Myth #10: One cannot make a career at this
For many years I was involved in the leadership of organizations that focused on programs for youth and young adults. It was common for them to ask “What should I do with my life?” My advice was always “Pursue your passion and see where it takes you”.
When I speak to people who feel compelled to do this work, I advise them to pursue it, even if the financial rewards are less than what they could attain elsewhere. It is possible that for some, mediation does not end up being a sustainable career, but you won’t know until you try.
It is not easy to start and develop a busy mediation practice. You will need to be patient. I speak to many who are exploring this field as a career, and I am honest about how difficult it can be. It is not for everyone, and not everyone will succeed.
While these challenges are real, other occupations also have real challenges that some people will not overcome either. Challenge is not unique to this field. On the other hand, every challenging industry has examples of young, passionate people who have succeeded!
If we discourage young people who are passionate about conflict resolution, we risk missing out on their energy, creativity, optimism and long-term commitment. Consensual dispute resolution needs these good people to help us push it forward.
Guest blogger Darrin Hotte is a Family Roster mediator, a Mediation Advisor in the Vancouver Justice Access Centre for Mediate BC, a coach, trainer and mentor. He keeps an active practice at New Solution Mediation focusing on leadership, family mediation and family businesses.