Laura Noah

Cook County Court Visitation and Custody Mediator

The following post is reprinted with permission from Laura's blog: Pronoia Mediation.

One pathway to a Career in the field of Conflict Resolution

by Laura Noah

I recently read “Engaging Conflict for Fun and Profit: Current and Emerging Career Trends in Conflict Resolution” by Robert J. Rhudy (2014), none of which surprised me, but all of which I wish I could have told my 30-something self when I was first considering starting my own business. In particular, I wish I had known that: Several parties interviewed echoed the point that we have failed to develop clear pathways into conflict resolution careers… With some exceptions, most persons interviewed described a fairly long pathway to full-time career success.  With particular reference to such private practitioner services as mediation and public policy facilitation, the perception is that a small number of practitioners get very good incomes while there are fairly recent estimates that the majority of providers in private practice likely make $50,000 annually or less from such work while perhaps supplementing their conflict resolution income through other activities (Rhudy, 2014, P.3).

With hindsight being 20/20, would I have done things differently?  Yes, probably. But it was still a perfect time in my life to launch a business; and to begin adjunct teaching; and to engage in a fascinating part-time job as a program development consultant with a lovely non-profit. My wife and I lost money—more money than I want to even consider—but we didn’t lose money we had, we lost money I could have otherwise earned if I had stayed at my court mediation job. I knew that I was lucky to have ever landed that job (I get to mediate full time and be paid for it!) when I first did so after moving to Chicago in 2004 and I knew I was giving up a lot when I left the court mediation job in 2007, but — without going into detail —I had no choice at the time, and a mediation business was something I had always imagined starting someday.

Upon re-launching this blog I stumbled upon my draft post:

"How do you start a small business? 'Get good and get known'" from June 2009.  I’m not sure why I never published it then so I published it this week, with the original backdate. Similarly, Rhudy (2014) quotes Juliana Birkhoff, Vice President of RESOLVE in Washington, D.C. as saying: “’People who are creative, opportunistic and ambitious need to network, volunteer, get known, and sell, and eventually they will find something to focus on, market, and succeed.’” I believe I did just that when I launched Noah Mediation Services in 2007. 

From 2007 through 2012, I juggled mediation, curriculum design, public education, peer mediation training, teaching and the nuts to bolts of running a business with sleepless nights and a breast-feeding baby. I paid off a $15,000 business loan, kept up with business expenses and my partner and I still managed to buy a home, get pregnant, and occasionally dine out. I learned.  Hopefully my clients learned.  And I got to watch—fulltime—my son’s daily learning for the first two years of his life.  Building a business takes time and commitment and an unfailing belief in your ability to be successful which you then must sell to others. 

As Rhudy (2014) states: 

In various ways, several described the kind of entrepreneurial drive required for success. Susan Butterwick said that her professional experiences indicate the need to hustle for grants and other funding, to sell yourself, to be adaptive and flexible, and to exercise self-promotion. Carole Houk said that she “had to create the need and the recognition for the need” in many of her earlier working experiences. Juliana Birkhoff similarly stated that conflict specialists will often have to make their own paths, and will have to convince their client or employer that what they have and do are what the consumer needs. (P.22)

I knew what I needed to do to succeed and I had been doing it, but I also knew that most businesses took a minimum of five years to become truly profitable. As it turns out, we just didn’t have that kind of time. After losing my part-time job at the end of 2009, I closed the office early in 2010 and kept the business limping along from home until ultimately in May 2013 I returned to my full-time mediation job at the courts, no less grateful to have it, once again thrilled to get paid to mediate full-time. I loved everything I had been doing privately, but once expenses were deducted, at most, between 2007-2011, I contributed $15,000 a year to the household; at worst, in 2012, the final year before I returned to full-time employment, I contributed $0 to the household income. Fortunately, I always broke even. As a contingency to my 2007 business loan the bank put a lien on my car: my wife and I named it our Toyota Collateral until it officially returned to my possession in 2010. As much as you can love something and believe in its value, lack of financial resources always takes its toll.

Would I say that I have been successful in the unique path I have taken toward a career in conflict resolution? Let me reflect on how I initially entered the field and where I am currently and then I’ll come back to that question.

In 1997, shortly after graduating from college, I landed a job as an administrative assistant in a high tech human resources department in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  From the director down, the department was an employment utopia with wonderful management and a supportive team environment and opportunities to grow and learn. The technology excited me; my colleagues and the supervisors were motivating and driven and kind; I’ve been chasing such a wonderful workplace ever since and I don’t believe it exists.  We were in a bubble until it burst a year later when our small company was bought by one much larger.  By the time of the acquisition, I had been accepted into and begun my graduate program studies in dispute resolution.  A colleague had been taking a course in negotiation at Harvard University and it sounded interesting to me; she reminded me of our company’s generous education assistance program.  I told my mom about the course, but being practically minded I felt that if I were to take a class, I wanted it to be toward a degree; Harvard didn’t offer a degree in this particular field.  My mom, ever the librarian, researched graduate programs in negotiation—and more specifically, conflict resolution—and found the one at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.  She even accompanied me to the open house at which point I was hooked.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the program only accepted students who were interested in applying their studies to an existing field; mine was corporate human resources.  Our program was careful not to do what concerned many of the interviewees with whom Rhudy (2014) spoke, such as John Bickerman who believes “’we are training people for jobs that don't exist’ (p.6).” Coming from an existing field—human resources—I had an advantage over other young applicants in getting accepted into the graduate program in Dispute Resolution.  Ironically, I left the field of human resources immediately upon graduating. Like many before and after me, I learned to mediate and immediately fell in love.

Rhudy (2014) writes: “Adler believes it is good to get an advanced conflict resolution degree if you want to be an academic” but according to Adler:  “’If you want to work in the field rather than teach or do research get a degree in something else like law, social work, psychology, business—courses that prepare you for a primary field—with a certificate or course work in conflict resolution (p.6).” In hindsight, I agree pretty strongly with this advice.  My stubborn 20-something-self believed otherwise, however, as I set out to make my career in mediation.  I applied and was rejected to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), which conducted multi-party mediations typically involving racial disputes in Boston Public Schools.  I was too white and too female—and in retrospect I understand why I was rejected from the program—most applicants, myself included, fitting this particular demographic.  Despite having participated in City Year between 1993 and 1994, I was virtually indistinctive from my liberal, white, female peers who had applied to be mediators with CIT.  However, given my drive to work with youth and/or families, I kept my head down and kept knocking on doors.  I took the course being offered by the very director of the CIT program to which I had been rejected, and I worked my butt off in her course to distinguish myself and prove my commitment to mediating in schools.  A semester later, I reapplied to the CIT program and was accepted.  From there, I applied and was accepted into a Child In Need Of Services (CHINS) mediation program, and began mediating on a voluntary basis for them as well.  In total, I spent about 3 years doing voluntary mediation before landing a full-time job in the field (peer mediation coordinator in fall 2001) , a relatively short time volunteering in comparison to people entering the field these days.  As Rhudy (2014) explains: “several of the leaders that I interviewed stated their overall view of the current situation in essentially the same terms: ’The field continues to have a high supply of providers, low market demand, and high social need’ (P.3).” I think this is truer now even than when I entered graduate school in 1998. Breaking into family mediation proved to be an even greater challenge.

At some point while I was in graduate school I attended a conference of the best known family mediation professional organization at the time.  I was young and green but highly driven.  Whether warranted or not, I ultimately felt shunned by veterans I sought out at the conference from whom I hoped to learn the profession.  I found family mediators at that time to be a small, powerful (mostly attorneys, mostly white, mostly male, mostly older) and exclusive club to which I had not yet paid dues.

I graduated with my degree, began running a peer mediation program in Boston, but sustained an interest in family mediation.  I soon learned that one of the veteran divorce mediators by whom I felt snubbed at the conference was teaching for a semester in my former graduate program so I audited the class. Over time, this person softened toward me. I got to know this mediator and ultimately, over dinner, I learned about the field of family mediation, in which I would enter full-time less than two years later.

When I moved to Chicago in early 2004 I knew no one other than my partner.  I found a family mediator in the gay yellow pages and cold-called her.  We hit it off.  I asked her if she knew of any job opportunities.  She said she rarely responded so extensively to calls like mine—people paid her to intern with her through her private mediation practice—but she thought there might be an opening with the courts.  The timing was perfect.  There happened to be an opening and after a grueling but exciting interview of spontaneous role-plays and heated debate, I started mediating full-time for the courts a few months later.  This same mediator mentored me as I left the courts and broke out on my own, to which I will be forever grateful.  Because of her, I have mentored others when my personal and professional obligations allow; there are no secrets to becoming successful in this field because so many of us are still defining what that even means, individually and as a profession, but we can pass along what we have learned.

I appear to be in the relatively unique position of having worked in the conflict resolution field as a mediator, program developer, educator and trainer in a variety of settings including private mediation, community mediation, schools, non-profits, and mandatory court-related mediation. I did all of these things because they interested me, but I also did all of these things because they were ways in which to “get good and get known.”  

To me success is in getting paid to do something I love each day; being invited into people’s lives at their most vulnerable and possibly effecting change for the better; teaching them skills to hopefully prevent future damage to themselves and one another; creating space for children to be heard; and helping to heal emotional damage and wounds, or at the very least, to create potential for such healing to occur. If I do these more times than not, than I feel like I am successful in my conflict resolution career.

Other important, related questions include how do you evaluate whether someone is a “capable mediator” or a “good mediator?”  What types of settings make for a good mediator or make for a good mediation? I think mediators would disagree about the answer to this and dialogue is necessary. As written by Rhudy (2014), “

Bickerman believes, however, that growth in court-ordered mediation is marginalizing mediation—stating many less capable mediators are now doing court-ordered cases and “It's become an event in the litigation process. Check off the mediation box before continuing with litigation to mediation.” I will weigh in on it this and I couldn’t disagree more with Bickerman.  Some of the best mediators I have met do court-ordered cases.  The program for which I now work helps families daily in minimizing conflict escalation and in developing tools and skills for better approaches to conflict and communication; we even help them develop workable parenting plans. I have mediated for the courts and I have mediated independently, and while there are numerous differences relative to context and clients, the quality of the mediators is not one of those differences.  The problem isn’t with who is doing mediation but with who isn’t doing mediation, as in the Cook County rule approved by the Illinois Supreme Court only allowing attorneys on the court referral list for family mediation cases involving financial matters. 

There are many pathways to a conflict resolution career, and I, among many of my peers believe that some sort of regulation or certification is essential as our field expands and as more people enter it.  Yet as a profession, we must also be honest about who has power to decide such things and who has a stake in what happens. We must invite everyone with related experience and an invested interest to the table; and until we do develop a clear path to becoming “successful” or “good” in the field of conflict resolution—and can reasonably and objectively evaluate this accordingly—we must be open to the myriad of respectable ways individuals come to be experts in doing this important work, without elevating one path over another.