Promoting Mediation: Challenges of Expanding Your Practice


by Frank Cruz

The recognition of mediation as an affordable and accessible means of alternative dispute resolution has precipitated a significant rise in the number of private dispute resolution providers. Private mediators are establishing an ever-increasing presence, either individually or by utilizing a panel of mediators, across the United States and in many countries. However, setting up a mediation practice does not come without its challenges. Among the greatest trials of a growing firm are devising an effective marketing plan and forming productive strategic alliances.

Marketing mediation

A successful marketing campaign incorporates positive local and national press, a loyal referral base, and a strategic advertising campaign. Possibly the greatest advantage of marketing mediation is the absence of restrictions on the means or type of advertising or marketing that a firm can utilize. While attorneys are prohibited from any marketing tantamount to solicitation of clients, mediators are free to engage in direct and indirect marketing of their services.

Before marketing its services, a firm might choose a signature style or philosophy that defines the firm's practice and sets it apart in the industry. Commanding a niche may be a timely and fruitful way of establishing a strong market share before the market becomes saturated with competitors. This entails more than simply choosing a catch phrase, slogan, or gimmick. For instance, a firm may promote its mediators as transformative, evaluative, directive, or a hybrid comprised of two or more of these schools of mediation. Such identification illustrates a focus on improved relationships between the disputants or on issue-driven mediation wherein the goal is settlement and a de-emphasis on the parties' future relationships. Clients then can utilize the firm's philosophy to make educated choices to ensure that the firm's mediators are suitable for their particular disputes and the hoped-for consequences. A firm also may identify itself by its specialties of practice. For instance, mediators with an expertise in construction disputes may spend their advertising dollars to purchase advertisements in construction journals and periodicals.

A mediation firm also may utilize mediation's cost-savings features as a marketing tool. A firm may identify its target niche as a particular socio-economic class. There is a huge discrepancy between the income levels of consumers retaining private attorneys for civil, commercial, and contract dispute resolution and those who have similar disputes but lack the financial resources to hire attorneys. The alternatives for low income and middle-income class consumers are few. While low-income clients may rely on free legal services provided by non-profit organizations like legal aid societies, middle-income clients do not qualify because their incomes exceed poverty income guidelines set by legal aid societies. However, many middle-income clients still cannot afford to retain private attorneys. Mediation provides an economically feasible alternative for the middle-income class that otherwise might go without representation. Mediators can greatly benefit from a focused effort at marketing mediation training and services to these sectors.

An innovative way of marketing a mediation practice is allowing clients to select only the services they need. Clients seldom need the full menu of services offered by mediators. For instance, parties in the midst of a divorce may hire a mediator solely to prepare the documents required by the court. "Unbundling", or taking apart your roster of services, provides clients the opportunity to pick and choose only the services they need instead of retaining a mediator for the full-blown services generally offered.

With effective marketing, mediation can become more widely accepted as a feasible alternative dispute resolution technique. Nevertheless, mediators may spend a great deal of their efforts providing information about mediation and its process. Once consumers are educated about mediation, it becomes easier to convince them that mediation is a more holistic approach to solving disputes, particularly for parties who want to avoid the "zero-sum" game or "winner-loser" feelings that may result from litigation. Presentations at chambers of commerce, churches, temples, professional networking groups, and other civic associations are excellent opportunities for mediators to inform the public while marketing their respective practices. The typical networking group consists of one member for each industry to avoid competition among its members. At each meeting, networking opportunities provide members the benefit of cross-referrals.

Forming strategic alliances

Notwithstanding an effective marketing strategy, mediators may realize that mediation is not yet the immediate resort for parties faced with a dispute. While it is essential that mediators continue to market their practices to a spectrum of prospective clients, they should balance their efforts with forming strategic alliances. Chambers of commerce provide a direct opportunity to inform other business owners about mediation and its benefits, especially in the contexts of employer-employee relations and purchaser-supplier contracts.

Collaboration with companies whose services complement mediation is also important particularly in this age of computer network access. Although many dot-com companies have closed their doors recently, mediators should explore the possibilities of the Internet. Opportunities lie in creating one's own website and/or entering agreements with any of the several companies offering online dispute resolution. These companies provide dispute resolution for parties who cannot meet due to logistics of scheduling or geographic locations. Such alliances offer mediation providers online capabilities without the start-up expenses of starting their own online company. A presence on the Internet also offers increased networking and referral opportunities through website links with related companies and services.

The government sector also is a potential ally for mediation firms. Agencies on all levels are utilizing mediation services and training to handle inter-agency and intra-agency disputes. The federal government in particular is a great venue for mediators interested in procuring contracts for providing training and mediation services. As a growing number of departments develop their own dispute resolution mechanisms, they will require mediation training, policy manuals, coaching, and program design and implementation. Mediators usually must obtain the required status/certification that qualifies them to submit bids or proposals.

Mediators also may collaborate with companies offering business management services including consulting and tax advice. Many companies have operated for many years and are direct conduits to a client base that can utilize mediation in their respective businesses and with their personnel. In the interest of providing consumers a "one-stop shop", national services established as franchises may share or lease their existing office spaces. Both mediators and the management service benefit since such arrangements present great sources for cross-referrals.

Conclusion

The often-uttered maxim that "The customer is king" is no less true for mediation providers. By the time many prospective clients consider mediation, they may be convinced they need an attorney or have already retained one. With increasing consumer awareness, parties are realizing that mediation offers the opportunity to discuss their positions and interests in a discussion friendly environment not afforded by traditional litigation. The encouraging trend for mediators is that many attorneys, once fearful of being misplaced as the "hired guns" to solve conflicts, have begun to refer clients to mediators. They apparently have realized that their clients want greater input or control in the outcome of the latter's disputes.

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Biography




Frank Cruz.  Originally from New York, I have practiced law in several areas including Personal Injury, Immigration, Housing, and Government Benefits. For two years, I taught undergraduate law courses including Family Law, Penal Law, and American Government to bilingual students pursuing careers in public administration, law enforcement, and as paralegals. Since relocating to California, I have completed over 100 hours in mediation training including cross-cultural relations and divorce mediation. I currently am a Mediator for the Dispute Resolution Program of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office and the Los Angeles Superior Court Alternative Dispute Resolution Program. To date, I have mediated many multifaceted disputes ranging from business and employment to interpersonal issues.

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