From our colleagues and friends at the Harvard Law School Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program.
This is the fifth in a five-part series on advice to law students and young professionals interested in ADR as a career. The series is intended to examine the fallacies our students often hear, and to give us tools for both combating the fallacies and responding with more positive advice. Comments are welcomed! – Heather Scheiwe Kulp
Fallacies Underlying Common ADR Career Advice Given to Young Professionals
Fallacy #5. ADR jobs are not financially sustainable, now or in the future
Unfortunately, much of the “first career” advice students receive sets up a false dichotomy between choosing an ADR career and choosing a job with “salary and status” (p. 31). Sure, young ADR professionals may not be making as much as “private, commercial neutrals,” who are often former judges or law firm lawyers. But these experienced attorneys already make more than young lawyers do coming out of law school. Making less than a law firm partner does not mean a job in the ADR field is a financially unsustainable position.
Saying that young ADR professionals are generally taking “low paying,” “administrative,” “low-status,” “limiting” jobs is harmful and untrue for many reasons.
First, of the young ADR professionals I know, many of them started in jobs that required a substantial exercise of their legal or other professional skills. Some of them mediated, others taught or trained, still others started their own companies. Some new lawyers prefer to conduct document review for hours on end and feel like that’s what a “real lawyer” would do. But for those who choose ADR as a career, they are choosing direct service to clients, deep pedagogical engagement, extensive experience in entrepreneurship or one of many other roles that require these professionals to access law school learnings every day. These roles certainly are not “limiting.”
Second, claiming all young ADR professionals take “low paying” jobs makes them look as if they are mercenaries “for the cause” of conflict resolution. The message is that only people who really, really care and are willing to sacrifice personal comfort can make it as a young ADR professional. This is not only problematic, but also untrue. It is problematic because it assumes that there cannot be an “and” linking “ADR career” with “sustainable, comfortable lifestyle.” It is untrue because many young ADR professionals live sustainable, comfortable lives—and not because their significant others make a lot of money, but because they actually make a living wage. Would some like to make the bloated $160,000 an inexperienced first-year law firm associate makes? Sure (some actually do)! But does the choice to pursue ADR mean they are choosing a career instead of a salary? Absolutely not. In fact, Robert J. Rhudy’s study of conflict resolution careers found that the median salary for full-time ADR professionals is $61,280—above the median income in most cities around the country (p. 6).
Third, it is odd to me to presume that ADR jobs are low-status or limit people’s opportunities later in their careers. I know a number of young ADR professionals who are critical parts of teams doing important work on today’s most pressing issues: community violence, foreclosure, workers’ rights, sexual harassment in universities, to name only a few. As there seems to be no lack of problems in our world, I’m not sure how choosing to be a creative problem solver limits job prospects in the future. Problem-solving skills are needed in a variety of contexts, from international affairs to corporate finance. To say that mediating these conflicts, designing dispute systems to manage them, or managing offices that investigate and propose resolution processes for them is “low-status” denigrates the very purpose of lawyers in society: to be part of solutions, not to create more problems.
So what can young ADR professionals do to challenge the myths?
Above, I’ve spoken a bit to the “older” generations of ADR professionals, challenging them (us!) to change our thinking about the kind of career advice (intentional or unintentional) we give. I’d like to end with some advice for young ADR professionals on how they can help dismantle the myths for good—and hopefully secure a position in the field.
- Seek out the wisdom of folks who have been in ADR for 5, 10, 20, 25 years, and share your interests with them. They are kind, generous, and willing to share their histories, struggles, and triumphs in this field.
- Thank those who have paved the way for ADR as a career. Send a note of gratitude to your Negotiation or Mediation professor. Buy coffee for an arbitrator who welcomes you to observe (with permission of the parties, of course) her arbitration.
- Take on their spirit of entrepreneurship. Young ADR professionals often shape their own jobs, and may sometimes need to create a job where none existed. Identifying conflict, and its symptoms, is the first step. Demonstrating how you might assist in managing the conflict is the second.
- Stay current on the latest research in the field (see, e.g., Cardozo, Harvard, Missouri, The Ohio State, and Pepperdine ADR-related law reviews) and consider sharing your reflections in blogs, short written pieces, symposia or conferences, or journal articles. This helps you grow as a knowledgeable professional and helps establish your credibility in a number of venues.
- Conduct systematic reviews of your own performance. Even a 10-minute presentation or a single mediation provides fodder for your own learning. Ask a colleague to comment on your strengths and opportunities for growth. Try to incorporate feedback into every area of your work and share with others what skills you are working to improve.
- Reconsider how you talk about ADR. Do you define it as mediation only? If so, consider expanding your definition and trying out some of the other areas: negotiation, dispute systems design, consensus-building, facilitation, etc.
- Consider keeping your law license current. Though you may not be “using” it to represent clients, you are using the skills and thinking you learned in law school. Honor your roots by keeping your membership to your Bar and affiliating with the local dispute resolution section.
- Meet with ADR-curious students in law school. Be willing to give them feedback (ask if they want to receive it first, of course) and share your story with them. Tell your law alma mater that you would have benefited from an ADR career advisor in the career counseling office. The more we can normalize ADR as a career option, the more schools will sense the pressure from students to provide courses, practice opportunities, career services and internship connections in the field.
- Consider expanding your job search beyond the traditional law websites (PSLaw, FindLaw, etc.). Some sites to explore: local, state, or federal government; higher education (not just law schools!); not-for-profit (like idealist.org); human resources; compiled job sites affiliated with ADR programs (Harvard Negotiation and Mediation career page, Pepperdine dispute resolution careers page, etc.). When you expand your view, you’ll see how expansive this field is, too.