Home Q&A with Community Mediator, Justin R. Corbett, MPA, MDR

Q&A with Community Mediator, Justin R. Corbett, MPA, MDR

CriminalJusticePrograms.com recently spoke with Justin R. Corbett, executive director of the National Association for Community Mediation, Associate Professor of Negotiations and Alternative Dispute Resolution at Indiana University, founder of Indyspute Resolution and Dialogue Center, and the former project manager for the Indiana Supreme Court’s Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program.

Below he shares his thoughts on his experiences in mediation and what it takes to be successful in the field.

Q: How did you get started in mediation?

A: My personal interest [in mediation] came from a professor at my undergraduate university who taught a course on negotiation. The course topic was fascinating to me, and I decided to go to a graduate program in dispute resolution. I received a master’s of dispute resolution from Pepperdine University’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. Also, at the same time, I was working toward degrees at Indiana University for a master’s in public affairs and at the University of Cambridge for cross-sector partnership. I kind of tied all of that together and became interested in the idea of community mediation, resolving disputes at the community level and empowering people to engage their disputes in more constructive ways.

Q: What kind of preparation does someone pursuing this career need?

A: There are a variety of different personal and professional backgrounds that practitioners in this field have. Some people have exclusive professional training in dispute resolution, but that’s actually the minority of practitioners. A lot of mediators out there right now, especially private mediators, have legal backgrounds or backgrounds in social work, psychology, counseling, teaching , pastoral work, or other professional histories. They have exposure from their previous professional work in dealing with conflicts, and they translate that into becoming a “neutral” to help parties solve their conflicts more formally.

The training requirements by state vary. Most states have some sort of 40-hour training initially, which you need to go through to become part of a court mediation roster. Once you have that initial 40 hours of training, there are continuing education hours, and some states also tack on practical requirements: you have to mediate a certain number of cases, or you have to complete a mentorship. Usually, the state supreme court is the place to go to find the specific training required to be a part of the court roster. Those court rosters are the standard within the state. Different state associations of mediators have additional standards. Community mediators often undergo similar and even additional training and practice requirements before being able to volunteer with community mediation centers to help neighbors address a wide range of conflicts.

Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well in this career?

A: You see the whole spectrum of personalities, but one common thread is a desire and willingness to help people. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with people, oftentimes at their worst moments. The desire to help people work through their conflicts is important. If you get bogged down by other people’s stress and their conflicts, then it will be a particularly difficult field for you to work in.

There are a lot of different skill sets [needed]: communication skills, listening skills and the ability to feel comfortable in stressful situations. Being future-oriented and proficient in resolving your own conflicts is also helpful.

Q: Are there any misconceptions about mediation a student should be aware of?

A: What I wish had been made more clear to me is that most people don’t graduate from a program in dispute resolution or go through a 40-hour training, and then, the next morning, hang a shingle, open up the door and have a steady stream of clients. This field is heavily dependent on word-of- mouth referrals and your reputation. It takes a while to build that reputation and to find your niche. Are you interested in working with family conflicts, business disputes, victim-offender mediation, public policy issues, or some other type of conflicts altogether? There are probably a hundred different distinct types of mediation. Most of the more successful private mediators will focus on one or two of these areas.

Q: Are there different categories of mediators?

A: The field of mediation falls into four or five broad categories. The first is private practice mediators. The second group is firms of mediators-these can be groups of mediators or attorney-mediators, therapist-mediators, etc. The third is court rosters. These are people who get paid usually below market rate (generally market rate fluctuates around $200/hr, once established). This type of mediator works within the courthouse to reduce the number of cases a judge would hear. The fourth are panels-for example, the American Arbitration Association has a panel of mediators. Community mediators are the fifth category. There are community mediation centers in every major, metropolitan area and a lot of rural communities as well. Community mediators are essentially the non-profit side of the field. They catch people with conflicts, which fall between the cracks of the other categories, such as those who can’t afford a private mediator, don’t qualify for a court-connected program, or otherwise wouldn’t be able to receive services to help them constructively resolve their disputes.

Q: What should someone expect as they start a mediation career?

A: As you get started, it takes a while to find what your niche is-to build that skill set and reputation that comes along with being a mediator. [Even with all the coursework and knowledge] that I brought to the table, the first time I sat down [to mediate a conflict], I was struggling. All of a sudden, it’s not some synopsis in a book; it is real people sitting there screaming at each other while you’re in the hallway of a courthouse, and people are staring. Do you calm them down? Do you let them do this? You can learn a whole lot through trainings, simulations, and books, but the real substantive development of skill sets happens when you start seeing actual cases.

A lot of the experience I’ve had on the community side and the court side is that disputes can be settled in just one session (sessions last 1-3 hours). A mediation involving divorce, custody, property, or foreclosure can be pretty complex and can involve multiple sessions, but on the community side, it is often just one case and a couple of hours. The parties walk in and think that the other side will not see reason and does not want to come up with a resolution. Two or three hours later, through the process of mediation, the parties walk out with some sort of agreement as to how they are going to move forward more constructively. When I first started out, the first 5-10 minutes, people are yelling, screaming, or crying, and I would sort of hang my head and think there’s no way that these parties will agree to anything. But, when I remembered my training, became more comfortable with parties’ methods for expressing their experiences, learned to embrace the dynamic, and allowed the process to take hold, [I saw] that parties were able to come up with some fascinating, creative and inspiring resolutions to what had previously been very destructive, protracted and difficult conflicts for them.

Q: How did the recession affect mediation?

A: Based on the economy, demand for community mediation has gone up. Economic factors have caused more stressful situations… [Also], on the market side, hiring mediators for a dispute is usually cheaper than progressing that same dispute through the entire litigation process.

Q: What do you see for the future of mediation?

A: I think there will be increases in the number of practitioners, the number of cases and in the diversity of cases. Each year, there is usually some new development in an area in which mediation traditionally had not been used. This past year, foreclosures have risen and people can’t afford to take these cases to court. Mediation has become a very successful alternative in a lot of different states. Before that, it was the formalization of what’s now called Elder mediation. Years back, when farmers were defaulting on loans, it was agriculture mediation. In addition, the professionalization of the field is ongoing. It manifests in the number of college/university programs for mediation/dispute resolution, the number of professional associations and the number of accredited trainers out there.

Q: What is the relationship between mediation, law and law enforcement?

A: There are a few connections-one is this concept of victim-offender mediation. It can be part of a diversion program, in which in turn for a modified criminal sentence, the offender meets with the victim, acknowledges personal responsibility for the crime, and oftentimes develops a personalized restitution agreement. It can be just the two parties (victim and offender) or more of a community event, such as community impact panels. In severe victim-offender mediation settings, somebody accused and convicted of murder might have a sit-down years into his/her sentence with the victim’s family members. These sessions are facilitated by a victim-offender mediator and can help the victim’s family express how the crime has affected them, gain a better understanding as to what happened, and learn the offender’s rationale. Those experiences can provide a level of closure not usually achieved through a traditional criminal case.

Q: Any other advice for aspiring mediators?

A: Be humble and ambitious. If you’re looking to make a career of mediation, be humble enough to know that you will likely not be able to graduate from a 40-hour program or even a master’s program and be able to immediately command market rate. It takes a lot of time to build a practice and a reputation. On the flip side of that, be very ambitious. There are an increasing number of people out there who want to start mediation careers. Have the initiative to try new things and put yourself out there.