Conflict Resolution|Mediation

Mediator Certification

In her excellent blog (linked on the home page of this blog), Diane Levin does us a great service by cutting to the quick of the debate on certification.  Her post is an essential read.

I have a lot of trouble with certification.  As a threshold matter, we are told in Genesis 7:16 that, after Noah had stowed one male and one female of every kind into the ark, “the Lord shut him in.”  I don’t think the Lord did anything of the kind. I think Noah lifted that gangplank, with help from those aboard.  You can be damn sure those wet and eager folks outside didn’t raise it.  The rain looks a lot different from inside the ark than outside.

No one seems to talk a lot about the “Noah” syndrome in mediator certification.  Like the early days of the AMA, the ABA and all other “professional” societies, at heart it can be seen as a way of making sure that the “unwashed” don’t sully the practice.   And a lot of the folks who most stridently advocate for certification are those who either assume they would be certified, or hope that they would be doing the certifying.

I also have a problem with the whole desire to “professionalize” mediation.  First, I just hate verbs formed by taking a poor innocent unsuspecting noun and lashing the suffix “-ize” to its pitiful body.  Second, I see no reason why being certified makes you a professional.  Being a certified “Sharpshooter” in Boy Scouts doesn’t make you a professional sniper.  And Lord knows (see above) that being “certified” by passing your state bar examination doesn’t make you a professional lawyer — in the sense of being any good to anybody, or ready to earn a living from it.

The idea of certification is also an invitation to abuse.  Folks are out there who are ready, willing and able to “certify” (for a price) computer professionals, secretariesmanagers, finance professionals, convention planners, photographers and sediment controllers.  It is not that these programs themselves are “abusive” — these are all above-board and admirable trainings, I have no doubt.  But are they appropriate to “professionalize” a practice in which there are scores of applicants for every job, and in which the median annual earnings is zero?

Besides, there are lots of professions that are absolutely critical to society but where civilization muddles on without certification.  Parents aren’t certified.  Neither are Senators or Presidents.  Chief Financial Officers of global enterprises aren’t certified, and neither are inventors or cooks or asphalt makers or farmers.  Stage fight directors can be trained, but they can’t be certified.

What criteria would you apply to “certify” an actor?  Or a writer?  Both have critical professional jobs to perform.  How would you distinguish a skilled mediator from an unskilled one?  And whose interest is being served by making that distinction and creating obstacles to entry for those who seek to practice?  The folks already on the ark?  The folks who are being paid to make the distinction?  The folks who will earn money by offering training to would-be “certified” mediators for whom, as a practical matter, no jobs exist?

The greatest challenge to the mediation profession is not the multitude of unskilled has-been or wanna-be mediators.  It’s the ignorance of the end-user (and the end-user’s counsel) as to what mediation is, and how it promises value apart from mere compromise of a claim.  If somebody wants to do mediation a favor, put that knowledge in everyone’s Kool-Aid.  Until then, let the poor mediators alone!  And “Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom!”

  1. Peter, I appreciate your kind words – and the terrific analogy drawn between Noah’s ark and certification. I share your concerns that too many will be left outside in the rain when we close the door, as well as whether “certification” truly offers any protection at all against the coming deluge. At the same time, I am concerned about those trainees who, despite my clear admonitions, leave the mediation trainings I have taught with their business cards already printed. This has prompted some to insist that we better hurry to fend off a flood of incompetent practitioners. It’s a thorny issue, truly – but it is of such great consequence that it merits cautious treatment and reasoned deliberation supported by evidence, not conjecture. The flood waters aren’t rising yet – there’s time for us to be thoughtful about this.

    We have need of common sense in these debates – I’m glad you’ve joined the discussion. Thanks again so very much!

  2. Thanks for your kind reply. I’m a big fan of the way you think and feel privileged that you would even notice. I’m just concerned that this is a solution in search of a problem.

  3. As a relative newcomer to the mediation “business,” I have been following the various posts and discussions in the Blogs about Certification with a lot of interest (so of it self-interest of course). Your post and Diane Levin’s excellent post should be required reading and the requirement should be to also read a number of the articles Diane points to as well (I have only downloaded them or scanned them at this point, but I will read them).

    As a person that is a member of a profession that has long been licensed by the state, no I am not a plumber but a lawyer, state licenses can only go so far. Initially, there is a reason a legal carrier is referred to as the “practice of law.” It takes years of experience to become a good, as opposed to excellent, lawyer. That is why there are some successful lawyers and many who are less so. Even continuing legal education can only add so much to a person keeping up their skill set. it is something you have to do to get good at.

    For a new mediator, this is a serious part of the dilemma. “I can’t get jobs as a mediator unless I am experienced and I can’t get experience because no one will hire me.” When I looked to start this phase of my carrier, the first thing I did was to sit down and talk to a few of my long time friends that have made a name for themselves as ADR specialist lawyers. Everyone had the same advice. You need to give it away before you can sell it. That meant in general volunteering with court sponsored mediation programs. As Diane noted in her article, the entrance level is low for many of these and your 40 hour mediation course will likely be enough to get you in the door. On the local level, the cases tend to be pro se and have a low dollar value. However, the human level of these cases is often high, especially where someone is being evicted from their home. While not everything you learn or do from these community type or state court cases will translate to the “big buck” commercial case, they will give you confidence in your skills and also give you an opportunity to try different techniques as you deal with different personalities.

    From my view I see some form of “certification” as a good thing, but there also must be a path to enable new people to enter the gates.

  4. I think we should think about the meaning of “certification”.
    Is the certification linked to an assessment? What does this assessment is about? (experience, skills, professional backgound, etc.) Does the candidate have to pay for this certification? Who does certificate? Is it an institution or a private center?
    As you probably understand, all this conditions may vary the real meaning of the certification.
    As far as my personal experience is concerned, what is very important, in Italy at least, is an assessment procedure focused to select mediators from thousand of possible candidates.

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