Dispute Resolution: Becoming a Mediator

Dispute resolution is a growing business outside of the courtroom. The professional mediator has excellent communication and interpersonal skills, advanced knowledge of the law and litigation, and the ability to facilitate an out-of-court settlement. People or businesses with an interest in fast settlements without the high costs and collateral business damage of litigation may use a mediator to resolve problems quietly. If you have a penchant for dispute resolution but do not care to wade through the red tape to sit on the judge's bench, take the steps to explore a career as a mediator.

The process of mediation is exemplary in its simplicity. To meet the end goal of dispute resolution, the mediator - an impartial third party - acts as the go-between two conflicting parties. This professional initiates mediations with the first step of preparation. Preparing for the mediation involves case review, fact gathering, and investigation of unknown facts and supporting law. The joint session follows, where both parties come together peacefully to discuss their complaints and terms. Private sessions with the mediator, or caucus, follow the joint sessions. This is a time when potential resolutions to the conflict are explored and each side may make counter-offers toward an agreement. Meetings may continue indefinitely as both sides work toward a resolution. Finally, the mediator closes the settlement once an agreed-upon term has been selected.

Mediations facilitate an agreement; the mediator does not impose a ruling. Mediators have a different role than judges, attorneys, or arbitrators. They are legal professionals trained to impartially review a case, resolve the conflict, and help both parties come to a comfortable agreement. These professionals work in a variety of settings, including private offices, in county, state, or government-funded mediation programs, and on the fringes of the judicial system, such as in the case of court-appointed mediators. A new branch of mediation online is offered by the American Arbitration Association, or AAA, which offers low-budget chat-room-type mediations for disputes involving less than $10,000. As the profession continues to grow, work environments, employers, and opportunities will expand as well.

Regulation of state licensure, educational requirements, and certification are not imposed on mediators unless they are working within the court or federal system. Likewise, there is no national competency examination - mediators must be aware of and practice within their own state's governing laws. However, despite its lack of homogenized training and certification requirements, mediation is not an entry-level career. A mediator may concomitantly have a background as a lawyer, doctor, or licensed social worker. At the state-registry level, most mediators hold a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in conflict resolution, psychology, or social work. Some states mandate pro-bono work in mediation as a requisite for state registration.

The registration threshold for mediators varies by state and may include hours of practice, area of experience, professional training, and completion of ethics courses. Although the state requirements fluctuate greatly, most states require at least forty hours of training in mediation and an apprenticeship within the specialty. However, there are no laws enforcing state registration as a mediator - you may work in private practice without registering at the state level, but you will not be chosen for state or court-funded mediations. Additionally, while you can work in private practice without any formalized education within the field, you will be competing against peers holding master's and bachelor's degrees within the field.

It is the responsibility of clients to research their chosen mediator's knowledge, training, and experience within the field. The majority of professional mediators have completed a mediation training program, comprising twenty to forty hours of training, before seeking advanced degrees in conflict resolution. Although the legal process can be taught, the interpersonal skills required to excel in mediation are innate. Taking a training course may save you time and money on advanced degrees if you are unsure of this career path. Advanced educational options are diverse, ranging from university-level master's or doctoral degree programs focusing on dispute resolution, to organizationally sponsored workshops on negotiation.

There are myriad specialties to choose from in mediation. A general mediation course will provide education in critical thinking, dispute resolution theory and framework, human behavior and psychology, and negotiations. Advanced courses focus on individual specialties, including real estate law for landlords and tenants, construction, contracts, product liability, family and divorce, juvenile, personal property, business and customers, and small claims.

Like many other professionals, mediators have a host of non-governmental professional organizations that support ongoing education, advancement, job placement, and training. The American Arbitration Association, the Association for Conflict Resolution, the International Mediation Institute, and LEADR - Association of Dispute Resolvers are just a few of the innumerable national and international organizations available for membership and support. There are many organizations also divided by state and specialty, such as the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM) and the California Dispute Resolution Council (CDRC).

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