When I began letting people know that I was opening up my own alternative dispute resolution practice, I had several people ask me when and how I made the decision to go into meditation. I quickly explained that I was planning to lead mediations, not meditations (at least not in public)! Nonetheless, those questions got me thinking. How many members of the general public really understand what mediation is and how it can help people resolve conflict without resort to the courts?
My first experience with mediation was as a young associate practicing law for a well-established, somewhat conservative medium sized firm. Few lawyers within the firm had any significance experience with or real understanding of mediation (one partner with whom I had a mediation early on in my career couldn’t decide how much of the case file we should bring!), but the partner with whom I was working on an employment matter thought it would be useful in our case because both sides of the matter had significant legal and factual strengths and weaknesses. Private negotiations were going nowhere because there were multiple defendants who could agree on very little, and we needed something to break the impasse if we were going to obtain a reasonable, and secure, resolution to the matter for a client who had a lot to lose if a court ruled against us.
Luckily, the mediator the parties agreed to use was none other than David Hoffman, who literally has written the book in Massachusetts on mediation. David mediated the matter over the course of a day, helping the parties to reach a resolution that addressed the needs and concerns of all parties. From that day forward, I was hooked on the concept of mediation as means to resolve clients’ disputes.
Twenty plus years, after having participated as an advocate or neutral in hundreds more mediations, I am convinced that few people outside of the legal profession understand what mediation is or what it can do to help resolve disputes in day to day life. As part of my mediation training, I did a practicum with the Community Dispute Settlement Center co-mediating cases in small claims courts. The only participants to the mediations I conducted during that practicum and in my subsequent work as a volunteer mediator with CDSC who have ever heard of mediation are the few attorneys appearing in that court, or the “frequent fliers” who appear there regularly to advocate for themselves or their businesses.
Part of my mediation process involves an explanation of what mediation is at the inception of the session. At the end of the session, regardless of whether the matter has been resolved or not, I like to ask the participants about their impressions of the process. Many with whom I have spoken have indicated that they wished mediation had been made available to them before litigation had commenced. The question becomes, how do we as neutrals educate the public about options to traditional litigation? More on that in future posts.