As a legal professional, you know how frustrating the court system can be for lawyers and clients alike. Costs are high, delays are frequent, and all too often, nobody ends up feeling like they received justice.
Then, the pandemic’s bottleneck in the legal process increased the frequency of alternative dispute resolution. One of the most popular ADR methods available is mediation. As a paralegal, chances are you’ve helped lawyers prepare for mediation and are thus at least somewhat familiar with the process.
If you are used to high-stakes litigation, you may think that all mediators are retired federal judges, law school professors, or other such luminaries. Not so. In fact, paralegals are particularly well-suited to become mediators. Here is a simple guide for making that happen:
Check your state requirements
Before you get too excited about becoming a mediator, you need to make sure that your dream can become a reality for you in your local jurisdiction. Each state handles the issue differently.
In Alaska, for example, anyone can act as an “uncertified” mediator. In Texas, to cite an opposite example, “Mediators used specifically for Active Civil Cases … must possess a J.D., have been licensed to practice in Texas for a minimum of 5 years, and be in good standing with the State Bar of Texas.” In the other 48 states, you’ll find requirements falling somewhere in between.
The first thing you need to do is study each state’s requirements for becoming a mediator.
In California, you would be required to meet Model Qualification Standards for Mediators in Court-Connected Mediation Programs for General Civil Cases, which includes 40 hours of basic mediation training, at least two co-mediated mediations of at least two hours in length that are co-mediated with or observed by a mentor mediator and legal education in the form of a course on the court system and civil litigation (this requirement is waived for lawyers).
Find educational opportunities
So, you’ve found the perfect place to start building out skills as a professional mediator. What now? Well, even if you live in one of the least restrictive states (like Alaska), you’ll still need a respectable amount of training if you want to find and keep a book of clients or truly market yourself to the full extent of your abilities.
One option is to take a formal certification course in ADR, such as the one offered by Pepperdine University. If private school tuition isn’t in your budget, however, there are still options. For example, the National Association of Certified Mediators offers a 40-hour online certification course for under $1,000.
This is not an endorsement of either program. In fact, the best thing to do is locate ADR resources within your particular state to determine the training that’s required for your location and particular interests (family law, for example). And, of course, you can never go wrong with a hefty dose of self-study. In fact, there’s even a “Success As A Mediator For Dummies” book out there for your perusal.
Plan your mediation path
Next, choose how you will put these newfound skills to work. Do you want to start a mediation business? Or do you want to build a focus on mediation into your professional brand as a paralegal?
If you make the decision to start a mediation practice, it’s time to create a business plan for your mediation business. In the interest of full disclosure, this part may be as boring as it is important. To come up with a comprehensive business plan, you’ll need to do things like:
- Decide on a business formation
- Determine whether you need any business licenses or specific permits
- Find financing sources and apply for financing if necessary
- Decide whether you need (and can afford) additional staff
If you choose to enhance how you market yourself by making mediation skills a significant differentiator of your skills, then determine the best way to highlight your newly honed expertise where it matters most. This could look like:
- Adding your certifications and skills to your LinkedIn profile
- Joining networking groups where mediation is a focus and get your name out there
- Update your resume to reflect this emphasis in your professional offerings
Build a marketing plan
Marketing is hard work but you absolutely need to hone your marketing skills if you’re going to either run a mediation practice or establish yourself as a professional with this focus. A good place to start is with a SWOT analysis. SWOT is a marketing tool that forces you to analyze four basic components:
- Strengths: what sets you apart from your competitors? Do you have a background in construction that will make you a strong mediator in construction law disputes?
- Weaknesses: what challenges or weaknesses must you overcome? Perhaps your relative lack of experience is something that you’ll have to tackle here.
- Opportunities: what opportunities do you have right now that you can exploit? Will your good relationships in the local legal community translate into multiple referrals?
- Threats: what market conditions threaten your business? For example, maybe local judges in your county disfavor ADR.
Obviously, this is a very basic SWOT analysis but hopefully you get the point. Understand also that this is just the first of many marketing tasks you’ll need to undertake.
As you choose if, how, and when to incorporate strong mediation skills into your professional development, start to consider some of these elements and how they fit into where your current skillset lies as well as the opportunities you see are most prevalent in the legal industry.