At this stage of my career, I am enjoying great success as a professional mediator for my own Sunnyvale Mediation practice, as well as for various non-profit organizations, bar associations, and Superior Courts. However, I do want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the great skills and experience I gained starting out as a Small Claims Court mediator. For mediators considering where to volunteer, I must recommend Small Claims Court, based on the invaluable rewards you’ll receive after having mediated a significant number of disputes. While much praise has been given to those doing in-house community mediations for non-profits, or to those who mediate multi-million dollar disputes, a grand appreciation for Small Claims mediators sometimes slips through the cracks. My goal is to highlight the unique challenges of many Small Claims mediators, and how they overcome those obstacles presented by the setting to develop outstanding skills as mediators, able to conduct the most sophisticated mediations if needed.
My mediation career began several years ago at the Santa Clara County Small Claims Court in Northern California, or as I like to call it “Mediation Boot Camp,” as this court consistently had several contested matters per calendar. Even though I was a practicing civil litigation attorney for over ten years, I was still new to mediation, and thus had to “pay my dues,” volunteering hundreds of hours, to become a certified mediator for the Santa Clara County Dispute Resolution Program.
Small Claims mediation is, as I like to call it, “The Improv of Dispute Resolution.” Just as successful comedians Will Ferrell, John Belushi, & Bill Murray had roots in unscripted comedy, many outstanding mediators have developed their skills through conducting impromptu mediations in the hallways of the Small Claims Courthouse. In this forum, mediators have to begin small claims mediation with the odds stacked against them. The mediator has very little to no knowledge of the issues beforehand. Mediation is a very new concept for most of the parties involved, with many individuals not fully understanding the process. The litigants are focused on their day in court, and are anxious to get back into the courtroom. Often, they have not seen the opposing party since the dispute, resulting in mounting tensions between the people involved. Before even addressing the key interests and issues, small claims mediators have to navigate through the parties’ apprehension, the tempers, and even some confusion. However, once a neutral gains significant experience, this phase becomes more easily manageable, and takes less time.
In fact, one of the greatest commodities in any mediation is time, and Small Claims Mediation, more so than any other day-of-court mediation, is an amazing training ground for neutrals to make efficient use of time during the dispute resolution process. Every commissioner or temporary judge is different in Small Claims court, and while one may allow up to two hours to complete the process, another may limit mediations to twenty minutes. Small Claims mediators soon develop the valuable skill of time-management, and awareness of urgency, without rushing parties to a decision. The mediator must make good choices and find a way to guide the parties to the key issues of the dispute within the short period of allotted time, while also ensuring that emotions have been validated and people’s interests have been discussed thoroughly.
As mediators in Small Claims, we have learned to “expect the unexpected.” Babies crying, parties disappearing, spending an hour on the exchange of evidence are just some of the unique “curve balls” that come a mediator’s way during the process. But with the same unpredictable universe of distractions and detours, comes an opportunity for creativity for both the parties and the neutral. More flexible settlement terms than in court, such as return of property or remedial measures, are indeed options in these mediations. In addition, payment arrangements can be expedited, quicker, than any court can order. I have witnessed many times, a defendant take a trip to the downstairs ATM to arrange for an easy cash-for-dismissal result. Since uncertainty of many factors is intrinsic in Small Claims mediation, mediators do get opportunities to think on their feet (literally) and outside the box to produce agreeable results.
But why do Small Claims mediators put themselves through this rigorous process? Why not just settle for the 3-hour community mediation between neighbors, where a case developer has scouted and highlighted the history of the dispute beforehand? Well, despite sometimes being unappreciated or called “glorified negotiators” by other dispute resolution professionals, Small Claims neutrals understand and deeply value their experience helping self-represented litigants reach mutually acceptable agreements. They fine-tune their skills extensively with the sheer volume of matters facilitated, while watching the true “magic” of the mediation process, often witnessing initial threats by parties transform into smiles and handshakes after a resolution. They sleep at night knowing they have helped make the world a better place. They cultivate and cherish the comradery and relationships with fellow mediators, court staff, and judges. These rewards of participation are ones that mediators will carry with them, not only throughout their careers as mediators, but also throughout their lives.
Now, as an attorney who often sits as a temporary judge, I have enjoyed the benefits of the work of Small Claims mediators, effectively reducing contested cases, from ten to two matters per calendar, saving court resources every time they mediate. However, while many of us can appreciate the efforts of Small Claims mediators and the sacrifice of time involved, the more important task is to recognize the valuable skills that these neutrals have acquired, and seriously consider experienced mediators with backgrounds in Small Claims, on par with most any other type of senior or professional mediator. I hope that I have shed some light on these mediators so that anyone evaluating these mediators for job opportunities, volunteer applications, or mediation services can appreciate the tremendous wealth of conflict resolution skills possessed by these individuals. Furthermore, we need to support the Small Claims Mediation programs around the country to sustain the amazing benefits of this process, where citizens helping citizens produces unimaginable positive results.
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