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How to Become a Mediator: A Comprehensive Guide

Published on: Jul 5, 2024

Litigation is expensive and can take a long time. Not all disputes need a judge to review the facts and issues and make a court order telling the parties who should win. Sometimes, the parties could work out issues themselves, but they need some direction.

A mediator is a neutral third party who steps in to help those who can’t resolve their disputes independently. Common disputes include a divorcing couple who can’t work out a visitation schedule, business partners trying to dissolve a company, or co-workers disagreeing about harassment claims.

Some people are natural arbitrators. Everyone seems to come to this person with their quarrels and arguments. If you’re such a person, you may have wondered if you can make a living by helping people resolve disputes. The answer is yes. Courts, businesses, and law firms increasingly seek skilled mediators in various practice areas. 

In this article, we review what it takes to become a professional mediator and how you can start your mediation career.

Common Responsibilities of a Mediator

To become a mediator, you should understand the mediation process. Although "mediation" is listed with “arbitration” under alternative dispute resolution, the two processes differ.

Arbitration resembles litigation, where an administrative law judge (ALJ) hears evidence from both sides and issues a binding ruling. Arbitration is less formal than court, and the parties are encouraged to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, but the ALJ will make a final decision favoring one side or the other.

Mediation uses facilitated communication between the parties to help them reach a solution together. The mediator is not there to take sides but to help the parties acknowledge the other side’s point of view and achieve a common goal. Mediation is not binding on either party, but a mediation agreement can become a settlement agreement if the parties wish.

Mediation is seen in areas of law where parties must interact regularly, and a judge’s order has minimal effect in controlling behavior. In family law or employment situations, parties reach better outcomes when they make their own decisions instead of being ordered to do things.

For example, mediators are very effective in:

  • Family and divorce mediation: helping ex-spouses resolve child custody issues, support, visitation, and property division.

  • Civil mediation and community disputes: such as resolving fence incursions, tree trimming, and noise complaints.

  • Workplace mediation: where workers and employers argue about hours, allegations of discrimination or harassment, or work assignments.

Qualities of a Great Mediator

Not everyone has the qualities that make a good mediator. Mediation demands a particular set of skills. Some mediation skills can be learned or improved through practice. You may already have natural mediation skills if you want to become a mediator.

Good mediators do not order people what to do. That’s a judge’s job. Mediators practice conflict resolution, that is, resolving the issues that create the problem. A good mediator must have or be willing to develop:

  • Objectivity and impartiality. When the parties present their issue, you can’t take sides. Even if one side seems objectively wrong, you must remain neutral and help the parties find a solution.

  • Patience and perseverance. The parties may have argued about their problems for weeks, months, or even years. They expect you to solve them in minutes without changing their position themselves. Your job is to listen, make suggestions, and never give up.

  • Creativity and problem-solving skills. When the parties can’t find a way to resolve their issues, you may need to offer a suggestion. If they come up with a solution, you may need to consider possible negative outcomes. Your task is to help them resolve their issue and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

  • Negotiation ability. Mediation is all about give and take. Both sides must give up something if the mediation is to be a success. Convincing the sides to give up anything will take all your negotiation abilities.

  • One skill you must master is active listening. Most of us listen with half our brains because we already plan what to say. This means we must catch more of what the other person is saying. Mediation courses teach active listening and other mediation skills necessary for your career goals.

Common Paths to Becoming a Mediator

Almost anyone can have the aptitude to become a mediator. There are no specific career requirements that make a good mediator. However, some careers lend themselves better to mediation. Many mediators come from human services professions, such as social work, legal aid, and psychology. Family law attorneys and legal professionals also gravitate towards mediation and conflict resolution.

Although many mediators have some on-the-job mediation experience (for instance, human resources managers often need formal mediation training to resolve conflicts), experienced mediators hone their skills with volunteer work at courthouses and community dispute resolution centers.

One of the best ways to determine if mediation is for you is through your small claims court. Many courts now refer small claims cases to mediation, either before or during the litigation process, and courts have volunteer mediation programs that train and mentor mediators. These programs are overseen by attorneys or other legal professionals to ensure the parties receive sufficient representation. The Neighborhood Justice Center in Las Vegas deals with minor disputes to help people avoid costly litigation and better resolutions than mere money awards.

Types of Mediators

Mediators are in high demand across the professional and business spectrum. They may have different titles, such as conflict resolution manager, dispute resolution expert, community mediator, or arbitrator. They are needed in courts, schools, and workplaces around the United States. No matter what niche you prefer, you can find some job that needs your services.

  • Family mediators

    work in divorce courts, family courts, and child services. They help with custody and visitation, child support modifications, marital settlement agreements, and more.

  • District courts

    use civil mediation to resolve contract disputes, small claims, and harassment and nuisance cases.

  • Community mediation services

    are becoming popular in cases of neighbor disputes. HOA and landlord-tenant disputes can call in community mediators rather than file lawsuits and drag cases through litigation.

  • Businesses and human resources

    have mediators on staff or bring in professionals to help with workplace disputes in all types of workplace conflicts. It can help if mediators have a working knowledge of the business. If you have a construction background, you’re better suited to interact with contractors and homeowners, and if you have some medical knowledge, you’ll have an edge in mediating a hospital dispute between a doctor and staff.

Education Requirements for Mediators

Anyone with empathy, impartiality, and good negotiation skills can become a mediator. No specific education is needed before you enter basic mediation training. Most mediation training consists of a 40-hour course given by community colleges, conflict resolution centers, or through the courts.

If you plan to work as a mediator, you may need a college degree. As a social worker, you will need an MSW and mediation training; other career tracks may require advanced degrees. Like any social services career, it helps to have a field or focus. Family mediation training is highly desirable and available through family law clinics.

Many mediators are attorneys or have law degrees. It’s not necessary to have a law degree before you become a mediator, but many law schools like Harvard Law School, Suffolk University Law School on the East Coast, and USC on the West Coast have mediation programs attached to the law schools.

Do You Need a Law Degree to Become a Mediator?

Although many mediators have law degrees or are licensed attorneys, a law degree is not required to become a mediator. Having a law degree or other legal degree, such as an LLM or MLS, can be helpful in some career paths. If you work in court mediation and must deal with attorneys and represented clients, it can help to know legal jargon and the intricacies of state law.

On the other hand, mediation is not about fact-finding and determining which side is right or wrong. Mediators should be able to remind any attorneys at mediation that questions of law or fact aren’t as important as whether the parties are happy with their resolution.

Law degrees are expensive and take several years to achieve. If you’re planning on a career as a mediator, not an attorney or legal professional, you won’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to further your career. If you want some legal knowledge to buttress your mediation practice, you can consider:

  • A bachelor’s degree (B.A. or B.S.) in mediation. Some schools, such as USC’s Gould School of Law, offer LLMs, and advanced certification in mediation, arbitration, or conflict resolution. Pepperdine University has a Master of Dispute Resolution if you consider advancing your career. You may need to research which degree is offered in your area.

  • A paralegal degree or certificate. Paralegal programs can be AA degrees or one-year certificate courses. Look for an ABA-approved program such as the one provided by Coastline College in California. Most of these programs are offered online as well as in traditional classrooms. These programs are designed to enhance your legal knowledge and help open doors for your practice.

Besides classroom work, internships and volunteer work with legal clinics can provide information and networking opportunities. You will need practical experience to complete your certification, and internships can help you find work and continue your education in the field.

Certification and Continuing Education

There are no state or federal requirements for mediators like for attorneys. However, some positions, such as family law mediators, may prefer that you have a certification in family mediation, such as the one available through the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. You must meet court qualifications in many states, such as California, to work as a certified court mediator. These often include certifying with a recognized agency or state and registering with the court.

Mediator certification is done through several voluntary state and national agencies. The National Association of Certified Mediators (NACM) offers a 40-hour certification course and exam. California offers training through the state Superior Courts and certifies mediators with the state.

Most certification systems require mediators to pursue continuing education (CLE) and improve mediation skills through conferences and workshops. The Texas Mediation Trainers Roundtable (TMTR) coordinates training and workshops throughout the state and provides opportunities for members to create their workshops.

States that use mediators within the court system may keep a list of registered mediators. Florida has a ranked list of mediators for different courts, such as county, family, circuit, and dependency courts. A mediator must have a certain number of mediation hours and educational experience to work in each type of court.

Questions to Consider Before Becoming a Mediator

After all this, how can you know if you’re cut out to be a mediator? There aren’t many good career assessment guidelines for mediators. More people seem just to become a mediator than plan to be one, but here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Are you a good listener? Can you hear what people are saying and what they don’t say? Good mediators hear clues about what people leave out and what they put in.

  • Are you a good communicator? Can you put things into words clearly and effectively? Just as important, can you put things other people say into words that everyone can understand? Part of your job will be taking words from one party and relaying them to the other party.

  • Are you a good multi-tasker? Can you keep several topics in mind at the same time? If one party mentions something that might be important later, you’ll need to remember it at a crucial time.

  • Can you stay impartial without seeming to be indifferent? Both parties want to know that you care about them, so you can’t act as if this case doesn’t matter to you. At the same time, you can’t appear to favor one side or the other.

  • Do you like helping people find solutions to their problems? Remember, you won’t be telling people the answer, you’ll be facilitating their resolution. They may not come to the conclusion you think is best—and that’s okay as long as they’re happy.

 If this sounds like your dream job, then mediation is the place for you.

Closing Thoughts

Mediation means helping people resolve their disputes and reach a mutually acceptable agreement. It’s a career that combines legal negotiation skills with counseling, a little therapy, and even some diplomacy.

If this sounds like a career for you, investigate the mediation training programs mentioned here. There are mediation certification programs in your area that can help you get the training you need to start your career. It’s a great way to help others and a rewarding path for you.

About the Authors

Written by:

Susan Buckner, Esq.

Susan Buckner has a J.D. from Whittier Law School. She’s a contributing author to FindLaw.com with over 350 published articles. Susan has been a legal writer and content provider for five years. She works with numerous online legal content agencies.

Susan worked with Whittier’s Family and Children’s Law Clinic as a junior editor with the Family and Children’s Law Journal from 2009-2011. After law school, she volunteered as a mediator with the Orange County Superior Court, with a 77% settlement rate.

Susan worked as a paralegal for solo attorneys in California and Florida. Her legal experience ranges from contract law to personal injury law, with a specialization in family and disability law. She has written on every legal topic, from contracts to intellectual property. She is also a published fiction and nonfiction author.

Susan lives and works in Southern California.

Susan Buckner, Esq.


Education: Whittier Law School, JD

Knowledge: Contract Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning