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Newly Neutral

I have been immersed in the field of ADR as both a provider and practitioner for over 25 years. I am probably most widely known as the Executive Director of the Mediation Tribunal Association (MTA). MTA, the once pilot program that resulted in the case evaluation court rule (MCR 2.403), is the largest provider of court-ordered case evaluation in Michigan. As the ADR Clerk of Wayne County Circuit Court, my office also administers the domestic relations dispute resolution program and mediation rosters for the court. 

A lesser-known fact about me, however, is that before I obtained my law degree, I earned a Master of Arts in Dispute Resolution from Wayne State University. As a degree requirement, I selected the Detroit office of the EEOC for a required 40-hour externship. It was at the EEOC that I cut my teeth mediating EEO cases, and would continue in that vein for years, mediating EEO complaints on behalf of the United States Postal Service. After law school, I also started mediating domestic relations cases and have helped to resolve divorce, custody, and parenting time disputes.

In recent years, I decided to extend my ADR practice to encompass arbitration, allowing me to expand my ADR skill-set and honor my love of writing. Even though I was familiar with mediation and case evaluation, I still considered myself a new neutral and decided to learn all I could about arbitration. So what follows is my advice to someone who is “newly neutral,” whether from a career transition such as retirement, or for the practitioner that decides early on in their career to build a neutral practice.

  1. What’s Your Why

Asking yourself “what’s your why” can push you to examine your reasons for developing a neutral practice. I see many seasoned litigators, nearing retirement, but desiring to continue devoting time to a law practice. The most successful professionals transitioning to neutral work are those known to have been collegial and apt negotiators regardless of which side of the “v” they appeared. 

In the field of case evaluation, it is very common to see a plaintiff or defense attorney that has practiced on one side for many years, transition to neutral work at the sunset of their career. At the end of the day, many people chose a career in litigation to settle cases, and the knowledge and expertise that you bring to the table, is what will enable you to continue resolving cases as a neutral. So whether it’s a desire to continue a legal practice that assists others in settling cases, or the realization that day-to-day litigation is not for you, find out why you want to work as a neutral. That deeper dive will help you craft a path forward. 

  1. Specialization

The age-old question facing attorneys of whether to be a specialist or a generalist, also faces neutrals. Some retired jurists for example, mediate a broad swath of cases, like those that were on their docket in court—employment, medical malpractice, personal injury, and business cases. Others focus on a niche practice that largely follows their litigation work. Domestic relations attorneys frequently mediate domestic relations cases, personal injury attorneys often mediate automobile negligence cases, and business litigators lean toward business disputes, whether arbitration or mediation. While not an absolute, people tend to have resolution skills in a familiar subject matter. 

I encourage people to drill down into a practice area and if possible, to build a unique niche within that bracket to give you an edge to stand out in an ever-growing field of ADR providers. For example, a domestic relations mediator who focuses on veterans or “gray divorce” will not only build their knowledge base in that niche area, but comes to mind when attorneys seek to find the right fit to help resolve their case. Accordingly, a mediator who previously defended real estate professionals will have an advantage mediating broker malpractice claims. 

Some believe a proper methodology training prepares a practitioner to walk any party through to settlement, but the reality is that acceptability by the parties more often than not, falls on the subject-matter expertise the practitioner brings to the table. Construction, maritime, domestic relations, labor and employment law, and medical malpractice are just a sampling of areas which come to mind, where parties expect some experience and subject matter expertise. 

  1. Training
  1. State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). Regardless of specialization, any Michigan-based mediator should start with a SCAO approved training course. The SCAO 40-hour general civil training addresses the core principles of ADR, conflict theory, mediation models, and fundamental mediator skills, coupled with an overview of Michigan’s ADR rules and requirements. After the 40-hour training, additional coursework in domestic relations mediation, probate, special education, and other advanced mediator training is available. SCAO has an Office of Dispute Resolution, and its webpage contains valuable links for Community Dispute Resolution Programs (CDRPs), mediation training resources, and links to mediation centers.
  1. The ADR Section of the State Bar of Michigan (SBM). The SBM ADR Section is a very active section with expansive resources on ADR. The Section has a dedicated Skills Action Team that designs outstanding training and skill building opportunities, such as the mediator forum, where mediators share and learn from each other; the Section’s Annual Conference, offering over 8 hours of SCAO-approved advanced mediator training, the ADR Spring Series, offering an additional 8 hours of SCAO-approved advanced mediator training, and multiple brown bag Lunch and Learn meetings each year. 
  1. American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA has a robust Dispute Resolution section with events, podcasts, and programming focused on all aspects of ADR. There are many other sections of the ABA that also have ADR committees that may touch on your practice area. For example, Litigation, International Law, Torts, Trial, and Insurance Practice (TIPS), Labor and Employment, Family Law, Business Law, and Construction Law are just a sampling of the practice groups with ADR sections. 
  1. State Bar Associations. Outside of  Michigan, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) and the Florida Bar Association are two examples of bar associations which offer extensive programming and events geared toward ADR. New York in particular, is the seat of large numbers of businesses, and the NYSBA focuses on ADR for those business disputes, with a nod toward arbitration. Seek a voluntary bar association that offers educational programming germane to your practice area. 
  1. Arbitration. The following are a few resources to learn more about arbitration: 
  1. The American Arbitration Association (AAA) is one of the largest providers of domestic and international arbitration and mediation services. AAA provides training from basic ADR principles to more nuanced and advanced topics such as the impact of generative artificial intelligence on labor and employment cases to ethics in ADR. Joining the AAA as an arbitrator or mediator requires qualifications specific to each roster, but training is typically available to anyone interested. 
  2. The National Academy of Arbitrators (NAA). The “Academy” is self-described as the preeminent organization of labor and employment arbitrators in the U.S. and Canada. Membership is highly-selective and obtained after a career focused on labor and employment arbitration. The NAA hosts an annual meeting that is open to anyone interested in arbitration and at any stage of your journey. 
  3. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The FINRA website states that its arbitrators are “highly engaged, dynamic individuals who aid their communities and enhance their professional lives by resolving securities-related disputes.” The FINRA application will harken you back to the application for Character and Fitness when you took the bar exam, which is understandable because these disputes involve topics like securities and fraud. FINRA also has excellent training resources. 
  4. American Health Law Association. Offers a 14-hour arbitration training class for those interested in joining its health care arbitration roster. 
  5. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). FMCS is an independent agency whose mission is to preserve and promote labor-management peace and cooperation. The FMCS’ Institute for Conflict Management delivers practical, experience-based conflict resolution training for individuals and groups. Institute training is specifically designed to meet the real-world challenges of labor-management relations and organizational change. 
  1. Diversity Matters. I am a black female attorney. I have been told “you don’t look like an attorney.” I have been mistaken for the court reporter, my client, and a paralegal. This happens so frequently that there is a book on this topic by Tsedale M. Melaku. To combat a lack of selection, opportunities, and a diminution of persons of color in ADR spaces, I dedicate my time and talent to organizations that champion diversity in ADR. 
  1. The Diversity and Inclusion Action Team (DIAT) of the SBM ADR Section. I co-chair this group with Attorney Phillip Schaedler. DIAT was formed to promote and support diversity in the field of ADR, increase the cultural competence of ADR providers, and enlarge opportunities for minorities in ADR. DIAT welcomes anyone to attend its meetings scheduled on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Please contact me at  [email protected] or Phillip Schaedler at  [email protected] for the meeting link and more information. 
  2. Professional Resolution Experts of Michigan (PREMi). PREMi is an invitation only organization of attorney dispute resolution experts who have numerous years of experience in both conflict resolution processes and subject matter knowledge in many industries and disciplines. Joining this organization has been the pinnacle of achievement in my career. PREMi is committed to diversity in the race and gender of its roster, as a signatory to a diversity pledge, and some of our members are leaders in state-wide diversity efforts. 
  3. WIDR. The American Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Committee has a subcommittee of Women in Dispute Resolution. I am WIDR’s Michigan Regional Chair. Along with monthly webinars and videoconferences with engaging speakers that deliver information on ADR and most importantly, practice building opportunities, WIDR publishes a directory of Women in Dispute Resolution to encourage the use of women in ADR. 
  4. SheResolves. I am on the Advisory Council of SheResolves. It is an organization of highly-experienced ADR professionals with a mission to connect, support, and promote women mediators and arbitrators. 
  5. Ray Corollary Initiative (RCI). The mission of the RCI is to increase the  diversity, equity, and inclusion in the selection of arbitrators, mediators, and other ADR neutrals. 
  6. Wolverine Bar Association and National Bar Association. I am the ADR chair of the Wolverine Bar Association (WBA). The WBA was established by African- American attorneys during the 1930’s to coordinate the energies and talents of the increasing number of African-Americans admitted to practice throughout Michigan. The WBA is the Detroit chapter organization of the National Bar Association (NBA). The NBA also has a Dispute Resolution section that provides programs cantered around ADR and diversity. 
  7. ArbitralWomen. ArbitralWomen promotes women in dispute resolution through events, social gatherings, mentoring and by sponsoring female law students in moot court competitions.
  1. Marketing

An ADR practice does not typically fall into the “build it and they will come” model. New ADR practitioners will admit that after being advised to hang their shingle, the early practice days often reflect calendars with more “white spaces” than booked hearings. While by no means an exhaustive list, some marketing resources that focus on ADR are: 

  1. Susan Guthrie, Make Money Mediating Podcast.
  2. Natalie Armstrong Motin hosts webinars and writes a newsletter, Marketing Resolution: Get Seen, specifically written to help mediators and arbitrators build a successful practice.
  3. Arbitrator Andrea Dooley, located in the California bay area, blogs and has written two books on labor arbitration careers and a practice in labor arbitration.

Go forth and resolve!!

This article was first published in the Oakland County Legal News on February 27, 2024.

                        author

Lisa Timmons

Lisa W. Timmons, Esq. is the chair-elect of the ADR Section of the State Bar of Michigan, a member of Professional Resolution Experts of Michigan (PREMi), the Michigan Regional Chair of Women in Dispute Resolution (WIDR) a sub-committee of the ADR Section of the American Bar Association (ABA), and the… MORE >

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