Career Audit

Mediation Way

Lawyers Opting for This Career Add Legal Skills and a Pinch of Psychology

Posted Dec 25, 2006 2:27 AM CDT
By Hope Viner Samborn

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When an opposing party dropped dead during Diana Mercer’s closing argument seven years ago, Mercer decided to leave her divorce litigation practice and opted instead to become a divorce mediator.

“I realized there had to be a better way to do this,” she says about her 12-year divorce litigation practice. “I had clients commit suicide.”

Chicago-area attorney Bradley R. Ginn also left a traditional law practice 14 years ago for a mediation job where, he says, he helps people and loves his work.

Ginn, former executive director of Chicago’s nonprofit Center for Conflict Resolution, works as a mediator in contract and employment disputes as well as other matters. He is an independent contractor with JAMS—the Resolution Experts, a nationwide company. “My favorite mediations are the ones where all of the parties are able to get what is most important to them and ... do that through a creative process,” Ginn says. “It is really rewarding to help people figure out their way out of conflict,” Mercer says. “It is also heartbreaking because people say if we had been able to talk like this when we started having problems, we probably would not be getting divorced.”

Many lawyers are turning to mediation for similar reasons. The Washington, D.C.-based Association for Conflict Resolution, a national group of lawyer and nonlawyer mediators, reports having 6,500 members. “There are a lot more than that,” says Sharon Pickett of Mediation Matters in Bethesda, Md., a consultant with ACR.

Many also belong to local and state organizations, as well as to the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution, which boasts 7,248 members.

Mediators ask the parties questions and try to learn what each party wants most. They also facilitate discussions between the parties. At the end, a mediator will draft a summary of the agreements.

The Living Edge

Ginn and Mercer use life experience as much as their legal knowledge. A working knowledge of psychology along with listening, negotiation and empathy skills are valuable.

For Mercer’s family law mediation practice—Peace Talks Mediation Services Inc., near Los Angeles—she needs to be familiar with tax and family law as well as mortgage, real estate and debt issues. She works only with parties who are not represented by counsel, and she partners in mediations with a therapist.

Ginn often works with attorneys and the parties they represent. “Among the most rewarding for me are employment mediations because it is a combination of dealing with legal issues and emotional issues,” he says.

To start their careers, each took basic mediation courses offered by national and local organizations such as ACR in Washington, D.C., and CCR in Chicago. In addition, many bar associations and law schools offer training for mediators.

After a basic training course, both Ginn and Mercer recommend volunteer work. “It is like flying a plane,” Mercer says.“It is like reading a book versus getting behind the controls.”

Mediation panels will add mediators to their rosters if the individual has suitable training and experience. Community mediation offices for businesses are growing in number, says Mercer. And government agencies and the courts often have panels of mediators for cases ranging from divorce and juvenile issues to environmental problems.

Lawyers considering mediation as a career should evaluate their strengths. A business litigator should consider corporate mediation rather than family law, Mercer says. But attorneys must determine whether they can refrain from acting as advocates or decision-makers. “They really need to work for both sides and not insert their ego into the process,” Ginn says.

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