Eyes Wide Shut: A Note to My Future Mediation Colleagues

As established mediators, we have a responsibility to constantly both reflect upon, and critically assess the existing state of mediation training. Not in an effort to discredit but rather, to inform ourselves and others with a view to always seeking to improve it.

There is a Clear Divisiveness! And, Mediation Training May Contribute to It.

Ideally, as family mediators, we want to avoid creating more issues than divorcing couples already present with. Unfortunately, we still have a long journey ahead. In today’s dispute resolution context, there appears to be a great deal of confusion, for both the public and practitioners, as to who does what and who is best qualified to do the work of a “family mediator”. In Ontario, a few organizations, OAFM, FDRIO, ADRIO and FMC, have taken on the challenging task of developing accreditation standards. However, not every accredited mediator is treated or promoted equally in the field.

Intentionally or not, there is a clear distinction made between mediators who possess a law degree and those who have other degrees. This distinction, unfortunately only becomes evident at the commencement of mediation training and after the commitment of thousands of dollars to family mediation courses. It is my experience, also shared by many others, that the divisiveness intensifies even more upon completion of training, specifically when mediators go on to establish a private practice, assuming that that’s the goal of their pursuing mediation training.

Lawyers as Teachers of Mediation…

The vast majority of trainers in the family mediation field are lawyers. This may be of concern. For one, the skills required to practice law are very different than those needed to practice mediation.  As such, when teaching, there may be an unintentional altering of those skills promoted in the course outline. Lawyers as instructors (and without any teaching background) may cause a training program to be biased and, therefore subtly (or not) steer learning away from its original direction and intention. In fact, the perception of bias alone may jeopardize the trainer-trainee relationship and, in turn, impact the attribution of a trainer’s competence. Without trust, admiration and inspiration, learning will inevitably be stunted.

Second, self-esteem and confidence in one’s ability may be either seriously compromised or incorrectly exaggerated. One example that comes to mind is the assertion made throughout dispute resolution courses that, even upon completion, those without a legal background cannot/should not deal with parties’ financials. This is interesting because outside of a recent 21-hour course, there are no such impositions for lawyers when addressing non-financial/non-legal issues. Simply put, one may purport that having a law degree equates with competency in all areas. This mindset does not only create a fundamental imbalance; it also sets a dangerous precedent. On one hand, it acts to inflate a lawyer’s confidence in skills they may not possess, such as developing child-focused parenting plans; understanding the underlying interplay of complex cognitive, emotional and psychological factors; managing emotions; recognizing and addressing mental health concerns; and, properly identifying and managing risk of abuse during and post-separation. On the other hand, it can serve to deflate the confidence of those who do not have a law degree and frighten them away from conducting what’s referred to as “comprehensive” family mediation, where all of the matters are supposedly dealt with in mediation.

It is then, not an accident nor a coincidence that, post-mediation training, the imbalance continues to intensify and, so, potentially affects the establishing of a lucrative practice, if that’s the goal! Lawyers have been primed to believe they have all the necessary skills and are given the green light to conduct comprehensive family mediation, whereas mediators with other than law degrees have been warned against doing so as if to suggest their skills are somehow inferior. And, so, despite having undergone similar training and accreditation process, the design of mediation trainings places some mediators at a clear advantage while others are only left with thousands of dollars in debt (on top of  frustration and confusion).

In her report, “Making Peace and Making Money: Economic Analysis of the Market for Mediators in Private Practice“, Urška Velikonja, a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University, points to trainers as having a responsibility to fully disclose the realities of mediation practice to aspiring mediators:

The failure by mediation trainers to provide accurate information about opportunities to make money in mediation contributes to excess entry in the market for mediation services….[I]naccurate information about the availability of mediation jobs as well as overoptimism lead aspirant mediators to spend money on mediation training and starting a mediation practice, and incur opportunity costs by foregoing other career opportunities. Not only may the failure of mediation trainers to fully disclose the pros and cons of mediation practice and correct trainee misapprehensions be unethical, it also leads to socially inefficient outcomes. To correct this misallocation of resources, mediation training programs should disclose information about “the known opportunities, limits, and obstacles in mediation in mediation employment and professional practice opportunities.”

Skilled Mediators Are Overshadowed by Turf-Wars and Politics

In reality, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for accredited family mediators who have other than law degrees to establish a successful practice. Why? Well, if only family mediators with a law degree are told they can do it all (financials, parenting and draft separation agreements) then there is no incentive for disputing couples to go anywhere else. And, how are family mediators without a law degree expected to promote their business: “Accredited Family Mediators Offering Some Mediation Services”? You see how quickly this can become a highly frustrating exercise. Second, a large number of lawyers refuse to work with mediators who don’t have a law degree, deeming their work as “sub-par”. This sad reality ultimately spills into the quality of service that divorcing families receive; since evidently it would be best to work together to provide for most effective process.

Family mediation training is a good example of a faulty design where learner-centricity is overshadowed by turf wars and politics. As it stands, its design greatly destabilizes the original core of ADR, pulling farther away from clients’ self-determinism and right to options. Without a doubt, it incorrectly promotes the conceptualization of mediation as an extension of the law model and/or a mere add-on to one’s law practice. Today, many lawyers feel OK including “family mediation” as one of their services, even when they don’t have any mediation training whatsoever. How come? For one, the Rules of Professional Conduct allow for anyone to be a mediator, with a minor caveat that they are to remain “neutral” and stay away from providing legal advice (pretty vague and subjective). And, second, the mediation field has established the ground for lawyers to be perceived as “superior” family mediators; this is not only evidenced by the language and materials used in coursework, but also by the difference in mediator fees (for example, some Ontario courts have a fee cap for family mediators who have other than law degree).

To date, there is no research suggesting a correlation between a particular professional or educational background and the success at being a mediator. Theoretically, anyone can put up a shingle and call themselves mediators. Same thing goes for mediation trainers. One does not need to have special qualifications or educational background to develop a mediation training. There are, however, a few “established” trainers who pretty much control this market; and a large number them also happen to be at the helm of mediation course accreditation. This raises a number of ethical dilemmas, but that topic is beyond the scope of this article. I am only referencing it because I feel it is an important piece, illustrative of a larger cycle of bias.

My fear, which I wrote about plenty, is still very much alive: lawyer-centricity is causing a shift away from the original intention of ADR by placing focus on systems rather than families’ needs. And, as we can see, much of the mediation training contributes to this.

Want to be a Family Mediator: CAVEAT EMPTOR

I am not suggesting that everyone who’s taking mediation training wants to make a career out of it! But, most mediation courses are being marketed and sold that way; and lots of people jump both feet in! Optimistic and energizing keywords are consistently inserted in marketing campaigns, creating the illusion that mediation training is a gateway to full-time employment or that second career. In reality, out of tens of thousands trainees, very few get to practice mediation and even fewer get to make mediation their full-time job. And, a large majority give up within two years to return to paying jobs. There are many contributing reasons:

  1. Trainers don’t fully disclose the obstacles of obtaining mediation work and so, many trainees discover these too late in the game. As Urška Velikonja puts it: “…the profession trains too many people for jobs that do not exist.. But, the trainers do make money!
  2. The training is heavily skewed towards lawyers: after all, most instructors are lawyers.
  3. It takes a lot more than a mediation training to be or become a successful mediator. Young graduates virtually don’t stand a chance to turn family mediation into a day-job. One wouldn’t, however, be able to read this very fine print anywhere.
  4. Gaining experience requires hands-on practice. Finding an established mediator to work with and teach you the ropes is not an easy task at all! It’s a pretty lonely road ahead once training is completed.

Ironically, and this is where we should turn our minds to, the public does not really make any distinction between accredited and non-accredited family mediators. Whose responsibility is this?

All in all…do not despair – Information is power! If family mediation is your field of choice, be wise and strategic! It’s not a regulated field; I am not saying it should be (that’s a whole different story)! Do your research on training, trainers and course materials. Ask critical questions about how you will achieve the course objectives and reflect on how those match your personal and professional goals. Call mediators in your community and ask about their experiences in the field. But, for the love of God, do not quit your day job – not just yet!