Building a Mediation Practice: 20 Strategies for Success

“If you’re going the independent route – setting up a practice as an independent mediator – you have to be prepared to do relentless marketing. Unfortunately, many of the people who want to get into the business don’t want to do relentless marketing. But that is the reality of the field. The truth is, it’s harder sometimes to get cases than to settle cases” (Peter Lovenheim, Becoming a Mediator, 2002).

Mediators who want to build a successful private practice need to follow the same steps as anyone starting a new business. Marketing is difficult and time consuming. Assuming you have the requisite training and experience to “hang your shingle,” here are 20 tips to get you started.

  • Develop a solid business and marketing plan. Starting out on a wing and a prayer won’t get you far unless you have a stellar array of business contacts. Nerdwallet.com offers a free outline on how to develop a business plan (https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/small-business/business-plan).

  • Develop a professional website to advertise your media practice. “Do it yourself” apps are not recommended unless you really know what you are doing. Remember, this will be your “face” to those who do not know you so your marketing must be professional.

  • Before you print hundreds of business cards, check out www.mobilocard.com. Its developer, Lulu Systems, Inc., offers SMART digital business cards. The QR code on the back of the plastic business card allows you to “tap” it on a mobile phone to add your contact information virtually. It’s compatible with Apple and Android phones.

  • Expand your repertoire to expand your client base. While you can’t be everything to everybody, specialize in areas for which you are already qualified and have business contacts. On your website and marketing materials, list a menu of related services you can offer in addition to mediation: conflict coaching, multiparty mediation, meeting facilitation, consensus building, restorative practices, parenting coordination, conflict assessment or dispute resolution process system design, training and Consulting, or – if you are an attorney – you might include more legal models (eg arbitration, private judging).

  • Expand your eligibility by finding mediation providers that maintain rosters or panels of qualified mediators. Many courts and business associations either assign or refer disputes to mediators who meet specific criteria. For example, courts provide custody and divorce, bankruptcy, landlord-tenant and small claims mediation. The Better Business Bureau, the American Arbitration Association, realtor associations, and FINRA – among many others – keep lists of eligible mediators. You will likely need to fulfill specific eligibility requirements to be added to various rosters. Be wary of panels that charge you to be on their list unless you are sure that you will get business from them. Some of them are pyramid schemes. They have hundreds of mediators available and only send out a handful of referrals annually.

  • Join local bar associations and ADR professional associations. Look for ones that have impressive membership benefits such as meetings, online directors of members where you can gain exposure, newsletters and connections with professional liability insurers.

  • Attend meetings where you can network with experienced ADR practitioners. Ask them where they are volunteering and getting paid work, then look there, too.

  • Seek opportunities for co-mediating, mentoring and shadowing with experienced practitioners. This is a great way to see different styles and pick up the “tricks of the trade.”

  • Send announcements to everyone in your contacts list. Whether you do this with a formal paper announcement or via email or social media, be sure to include all of your contact information and social media links. Everyone is a potential client or referral source. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to get new business. Remember: attorneys tend to recommend (and hire) attorneys.

  • Create and practice an “elevator speech” so when people ask what you do, you can describe your services in a few minutes. Remember deep marketing is better than wide marketing. When you discover a potential client, follow up (possibly several times; but don’t be a pest). Don’t expect them to reach out to you.

  • Gain experience by volunteering at your local court or community mediation center.

  • After you gain experience in one area, consider broadening the scope of your practice by taking advanced trainings in more specialized or related ADR processes.

  • Optimize the Association for Conflict Resolution’s annual “Conflict Resolution Day” as a way to publicize your business – schedule or participate in sponsored special events on that day (third Thursday each October).

  • Write professional articles, op-eds on current affairs involving public disputes, or start a column in the local newspaper. Professional association newsletters, journals, mediate.com, and other print and social media publishers accept articles. Write for your audience. Check the publisher’s submission guidelines before starting your article. Some articles can be repurposed for more than one publication.

  • Maximize the use of social media. Some ideas are starting your own blog or vlog, posting regularly to LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and sending short items of interest to your email contacts. Subscribe to an email marketing service (eg, Constant Contact, Hubspot, Mail Chimp) which will make it easy to blast items of interest to your whole email contact list. Your email marketing cost will depend on how many emails you send per month. It is important to constantly build your email list, adding every contact you meet. Now that you can create short videos using a mobile phone, post them on a personalized YouTube channel. Some video ideas are highlighting your services by explaining the benefits of using them, interviewing other specialists, or featuring satisfied mediation participants who agree to waive confidentiality or others who have used your related services. As with the articles you write: know your audience and control the content. Don’t hire a ghost writer who is not familiar with mediation. Remember watching those television shows and movies that feature media scenes? They were obviously written by people who know nothing about mediation. Whether your audience is professional mediators or potential clients, you want them to be impressed with your knowledge; not cringe (or laugh like watching the divorce scene in The Wedding Crashers).

  • Print material is still a viable option. Create brochures describing your services and deliver them to locations related to your business (eg, if you plan to provide services to the elderly, drop off brochures at nursing homes or senior centers). Waiting rooms are great because the people sitting there have time to read them (if they are not on their mobile phones). Don’t forget to replenish the stock. When you do, chat with the receptionists who probably are in a position to hear about situations ripe for mediation. If you develop a relationship with them, they may recommend you when conflict gossip piques their ears. Here is where advertising specialties come into play. To ensure they remember your name, order specialty items that include your name, services and contact info that the staff could use (eg, mouse pads, post-it notes, water bottles) so your name will be front and center on their desk.

  • Volunteer to speak at conferences related to your business (eg, HR managers, bar association sections, mediation professional associations).

  • Speak for free at community meetings (eg, block clubs, Rotary, chamber of commerce, Lunch and Learns).

  • Model your communication skills wherever you go! Watch for local conflicts that could benefit from your services. Attend community meetings about those issues. During the meeting, look for opportunities to demonstrate your skills (eg, paraphrasing, clarifying issues, pointing out common ground).

  • Once you have built a successful private practice, pay it forward by teaching a course at a local college or university, mentoring fledgling practitioners as they start on their mediation career path. Student interns make great assistants and they will thank you for helping them gain experience.

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