For STCL's upcoming 40-hour mediation class, I was asked to record a half hour or so on building a mediation practice. I asked my colleague Martin Law to join me, and we recorded our conversation.
I'm asked fairly frequently about what it takes to build a mediation practice, and Martin and I agreed on the first principle: patience. This is not a practice area that grows quickly or easily. I noted that it is an extremely personal process as well as "slow, frustrating, and a labor of love."
For those that won't see our video, I'm summarizing our conversation here.
How long does it take? When I first started planning in 2015, one of my mentors told me to expect it to take at least five years. As a general rule of thumb, that is probably still accurate. However, for complex or more arcane legal areas, add a few years. This also means at least five years of experience litigating cases. I cannot emphasize this enough: you must be able to authentically talk about all phases of the litigation process with clients. When a case involves a bungled deposition or an ugly discovery fight, experience is needed to address the nuances those issues bring to the discussions.
The problem of growing your practice is a simple one - no attorney is going to trust you with their case and their client unless they know you either personally or by reputation. Being entrusted with a case for mediation is almost a sacred act - the attorney is telling their client they trust your judgment. The highest compliment you will receive as a mediator is when someone books another case with you.
Here are the basics: get your 40-hour certificate, join the Association of Attorney Mediators (AAM) (attorney-mediators.org), make sure you have a website, make sure you are on social media, and get ready to network. Why AAM? It is hands-down the best organization for learning from colleagues who have seen it all and are still doing it all. As a bonus, membership includes malpractice insurance. A website is critical, even if it's just a couple of pages, so that your attorney clients can point their clients to it as an introduction to you. Make sure you have online calendaring on your website so it is easy to see your availability. Being available means being the "last desperate choice" of parties who have to mediate before trial. Those cases will turn into repeat customers.
Social media - love it or hate it, it is absolutely necessary. I am a member of easily a dozen Facebook lawyer groups. These groups do not allow advertising which is a good thing. If lawyers could advertise in them all of the really interesting content would be drowned out. However, being positioned to engage in conversations with other attorneys about problems, new potential clients, or even what new computer game is coming out means that other attorneys will come to recognize your name and also hopefully who you are and your expertise.
Networking is another way to build your recognition factor. There are a number of ways to do this from attending local bar events to volunteering to CLEs to volunteering. The big bar organizations like the Houston Bar Association have multiple sections to join, almost all of whom have section meetings during the year. These can be incredibly helpful but do not miss the smaller local and specialty bars. I've made incredible connections over the years with organizations like the Muslim-American Bar Association and the Northwest Houston Bar Association to name just two of dozens that are out there. Their dues are more modest than the larger bars and they are often looking for speakers. More on speaking in a moment.
At networking events have three versions of a "pitch" ready to go - escalator, elevator, and stuck in line. What is critical with your pitch is to not do too much, no one wants a sales pitch. (Footnote: I tend to nerd out about mediation which can come across as unintendedly sales-pitchy. The truth is I nerd out about it with my family and friends, too.) So figure out how to say what you do in thirty seconds as part of being introduced to someone, for example, "Great to meet you, Martin. I'm Denise Peterson and I mediate and arbitrate civil cases." A little more detail? "Oh, your clients are mostly residential construction cases? Oof, those are challenging to mediate, especially if there were problems in the RCLA process..." In the longer "pitches" make sure they are more conversational than a recitation of your curriculum vitae.
The first CLEs I taught were for smaller bar organizations and were to date some of my favorite opportunities. Smaller means more intimate, which lowers anxiety as well as allows for one-to-one discussions. These lead to larger opportunities down the road and I've not only spoken at the State Bar Annual Conference but also have paid speaking opportunities.
Break out your favorite word-processing program because there are a slew of templates you'll need. Or email me, I am happy to share. On top of your curriculum vitae, gather: a short biography, a contact to mediate, a mediated settlement agreement, code of conduct, addendums for pro se, addendums for cases with interpreters, mediator's proposal, mediator's report to the court, and cover letters/emails for scheduling and confirming. I cannot emphasize the importance of a Code of Conduct and contract enough: when you have someone show up to mediation half-naked and high, you'll want a signed contract you can point to stating that the mediation is cancelled and no, there probably won't be a refund.
I've realized this discussion needs to be broken into parts, so hold on for part two coming soon.