Spend a little time inside any mediators’ discussion group and it won’t be long before someone complains how hard it is to be a full-time mediator. Interestingly, they invariably externalize blame, attributing it primarily to two causes: (i) prospective clients don’t understand mediation; and (ii) access to cases is controlled by lawyers or the courts.
Yet neither is true — or at least, neither is the show-stopper these hand-wringers would have us believe. Mediation has become evermore central in the dispute resolution landscape, occupying a place well beyond the purview of attorneys, the courts, or anyone else.
Exhibits A, B, C, D, and E: Peer mediation is widely taught in schools; the courts (family, small claims, civil, etc.) direct would-be litigants into mandatory mediation programs; thousands of divorcing couples independently choose divorce mediation rather than contest issues in court; attorneys frequently advocate mediation for their clients in all manner of cases; and organizations (public- and private-sector, large and small) employ mediators to address workplace issues. And that’s not even to mention specialist applications such as foreclosure mediation and malpractice mediation.
Consider also the high failure rate of new businesses in general. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one-third of start-ups fail within their first two years, and less than half (44%) survive beyond their fourth year. With that sobering data in mind, Why should mediation businesses fare better than these national averages?
To suppose they would or should betrays a naiveté that is, I believe, a clue to the struggles of so many frustrated mediators. In my experience, few mediators think like successful, well-rounded business people. Rather, they are technicians only — passionate and skilled in the practice of mediation, but uninterested and under-educated in the concerns of business. Matters such as branding, marketing, pricing, cost management, entity formation, and the application of technology for strategic advantage are irksome distractions.
Mediators — perhaps because they hold the belief that mediating is a more noble endeavor than say, operating a pizza franchise or practicing as a litigator — seem to feel uniquely entitled to instant financial success. Evidently, the market doesn’t reward mediators ipso facto, just for being peacemakers, even peacemakers who would save their clients money.
This brings me to my conclusion: Mediators’ failure to internalize blame is what forces so many of them (more than the national average) to abandon their dreams of a profitable private practice.
But it is possible to build a profitable mediation practice with minimal start-up costs. And there’s no reason why you can’t apply the lessons I’ve learned to do the same for yourself. I had no special advantages in my own practice development — no juris doctorate, no therapist’s license (two of the most common backgrounds from which to build a mediation practice). Neither did I have a ready-made network of referral sources nor some rainmaker-cum-fairy godmother who sent me cases.
I’m not suggesting that pursuit of a mediation career is easy. “Don’t quit your day job!” — the clarion call of every professional mediator — is sage advice. Not just because building a mediation practice is difficult. (It is difficult, but so is building any kind of business.) It’s sage because you don’t have to quit your day job to embark on a mediation career. You can build a practice while working part-time, or at least build the foundation and achieve “proof-of-concept” before walking into your boss’s office with letter of resignation in hand.