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Let’s Change Our Limiting Self-Labeling Practices

This article is intended as an invitation to reconsider your participation in a labeling trend that is serving neither mediators nor the dispute resolution field well.

In gatherings of mediators throughout the U.S., I’m noticing increasing usage of the terms “attorney-mediator” and “non-attorney mediator.” I’ve stopped using those labels and invite you to do the same.

The terms create confusion, contribute to an ingroup/outgroup mentality that has no place in our field, and are, at their very worst, insulting. Here’s why:

“Attorney-mediator” suggests that the two professional roles are performed simultaneously or that one is necessarily adjunct to the other. Either interpretation risks a conclusion by the public that the two go hand in hand. Of course, they don’t go hand in hand and mediator ethics statements and guidelines go to lengths to make that clear.

Adopting “attorney-mediator” language and its converse necessitates other hybrids in order to fairly acknowledge the rich diversity of background from which excellent mediators hail: therapist-mediator, educator-mediator, social worker-mediator, realtor-mediator. The list would become exhausting before it could become exhaustive, and would drift into the ridiculous: horse trainer-mediator, massage therapist-mediator and so on.

And perhaps most importantly of all, “non-attorney mediator” defines mediators who have degrees other than a J.D. by the absence of attorney-ness. It is the equivalent of referring to African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and others who are not Caucasian by the term “non-White,” a label now widely understood as race-centric and which tells us little of value about the “non-White” being described. No one should be defined by what they are not. “Non-attorney mediator” is a marginalizing label and has no place in our field.

What should we use instead? How about “mediator” or “professional mediator”? The latter may not apply to you if you mediate solely in a volunteer capacity, and so you may find the first option more inclusive and straightforward. “Mediator” embraces all who have the courage, capacity and constitution to sit in the mediator’s chair, regardless of profession of origin, academic degree, and preparatory history.

And as others before me have said, the term “mediator” conveys that the work of mediation is an activity worthy of standing on its own, with no reliance on another profession for its credibility.

The change, if you accept my invitation, is an easy one: Find a replacement term of merit and stop using the marginalizing and confusion-generating terms when you write and when you speak. I was able to make the switch in a single day and you can, too.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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