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Get Your Mediation Business Model Right

Get Your Mediation Business Model Right

We’re under no illusions as to just how tough being a newcomer to mediation is, particularly in the UK where the field is still in its infancy. So how do you break into an already competitive market where the supply and demand curves are out of kilter? Don’t expect to the silver bullet in this interview (if there was one I’d be selling it alongside the water fuelled combustion engine). But if you’re new to mediation don’t despair because there’s plenty of conflict out there, it’s just a case of looking under the right rocks. Bill shares a some really sound advice for any new mediators looking to break into the field and catch a lucky break.

This is Part 2 of a 2-Part interview with Bill. In Part 1 we learn what attitudes and dispositions are required to becoming a top flight mediator.

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Full Transcript

Aled Davies:   Coming up in the second part of the Bill Marsh interview, how do you carve your own path, create your own mediation success story, and mediate on a more regular basis? We all know the stats released every year by Cedar that roughly 90% of all mediations are carried out by about 5% to 10% of the most established mediators in the U.K. Should the mediation field make room for newcomers, or is it up to us?


Do we need to find a way of carving our own path, or is there another alternative? All this and more in the second part of the interview. And if you haven’t watched the first part watch it right now. There’s some real gold dust in there.


Okay, here’s the interview.


I want to get into the debate around newcomers…


Bill Marsh:    Yeah.


Aled:       …coming into mediation. How can they, because I believe, I’m a self starter, Bill. I’ve never had a job in my life.



Marsh:    Okay.


Aled:       Well, I tell a lie, I’ve had a couple. But I’ve always worked for myself. And I do believe that, you know, if you want something you need to go out and create it, or you go and get a job. Now that’s, you get employed by someone. And I think one of the interesting things is about mediators is, you know, we’re all self employed, for the most part, which requires a different – not just a different set of skills, but an entirely different approach and a different mindset. So when I hear the argument that, you know, 90% of all mediations are done by 5% of mediators, I find that fantastic, you know. It’s a winner take all market, you know, bring it on. And I just don’t buy the argument that, you know, it’s not fair, it’s not . . . I think as mediators we need to be creative. If we can’t break into a particular market we need to be market makers and find our own little niche and create our own little market.


Bill:           Yeah, I agree.


Aled:       But it’s all very well me saying that. I want to help mediators be able to do that. Why? Because I think it’s a real, real travesty the number of mediators that have paid good money to learn to become mediators to learn the skills, you know, the ideology, the process, whatever, you know. And some of which might, for whatever their motives and intent are, I think to get interested in mediation in the first place, you know, something’s got to have, you know, triggered that thought, and there’s some kind of intent to do good, to create peace somewhere. There’s no shortage of conflict in the world, so I think I want to help people find a way to be able to bring more peace into the world.


Bill:           Okay.


Aled:       And I’m interested in thinking, if you were starting out, Bill, 2013, starting out as a mediator with all the experience that you’ve got. What were the kinds of things you’d be thinking about doing, exploring? How would you be utilising your time?


Bill:           Well, I guess the short answer, Aled, is, if I knew the answer to this I’d have written a book and retired a long time ago, because it is the question that all new mediators want to know, and rightly so. I think before looking at what mediators can do, I think there is also an underlying challenge for us as a profession, that actually mature and developed professions do have entry points and developmental pathways, if you like, for newcomers. Whether that’s, you know, architecture, medicine, whatever it is.


So I think we do – at the level of the profession as a whole there is a challenge for us. That’s the first thing, I have no idea what the answer is, but I do think we should take the challenge seriously. That’s just a couple of minute’s worth to give me time to think up any answers I might have to your question.


Aled:       Well, if you’re training in medicine it’s not a five-day course that you go on.


Bill:           Also true. Thankfully.


Aled:       [laughs]


Bill:           Look, there are lots of things I think I’d say to someone setting up shop now. First of all it’s not going to be quick, so just recognise that. It’s going to be long term. And if that means developing it in parallel with other stuff for a while, well so be it. You know, rather than get frustrated about it, just recognise that’s where the field is.


Second I would say that the business model you choose is significant. I think I’ve done, most things I’ve been a sole practitioner. I’ve been in an ADL organization. I’m now in a Chambers of Mediators, a good plug for you can…


Aled:       Ka-ching.


Bill:           And I know that . . . I’m sorry, you can edit that bit.


Aled:       No.


Bill:           There are mediators who work, you know, part time at being mediators. And there are mediators who work, you know, in other jobs as lawyers, accountants, whatever. So there are lots of different models. And I think choosing a model that works for you is really important. I’ve done, as I say, three out of the available four or five options. I think the chambers model is probably the model, in fact it’s almost certainly the model of the future.


Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           And it’s certainly done a lot for me, partly because there is some camaraderie in being in a chambers, because it’s quite a lonely old business, when you’re just out there getting beaten up by parties week after week. So I think some sort of camaraderie is important.


So I think the second thing is to choose the business model thoughtfully and carefully.


Aled:       Yeah. Just coming back to the chambers and the camaraderie, I mean, how does that . . . do you meet on a regular basis? Do you…? I mean, how does that camaraderie manifest?


Bill:           Yeah, we meet on a regular basis. We will phone each other quite regularly, maybe. Supposing I’ve got a tough case that’s going on. I won’t mention any names, but I’ll phone one of the guys and say, look, I’m doing this. This is what we’ve got, to. I think probably the next step is this, but what do you think? And I get calls from the other guys to say the same, as well. And then we meet a number of times per year and discuss cases, discuss challenges, and so on. So there’s a sense in which we learn from each other, and just the camaraderie of knowing that everybody else is in the trenches as well.


Aled:       Yeah, yeah.


Bill:           It is important.


Aled:       So, it sounds like you get some professional development from it, as well.


Bill:           Oh, unquestionably. No doubt at all. Because you know, mediating is a very . . . for all that people teach a process, it’s still a very, very personal thing. It’s a product of your own character, and how you see life, how you see conflict, how you see people, what you’re comfortable with, and so on. So everybody’s going to do it differently. And so I can benefit immensely from phoning one of my guys and saying, ‘This is the situation as I see it. When you look at the same situation what do you see?’ And the chances are that they’ll see something different.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           So it’s very helpful.


Aled:       Sorry, Bill, but why do you say chambers is the model going forward, the model of the future? What leads you to say that?


Bill:           Gosh. Well it’s more, I mean, there’s more camaraderie and support, as I’ve discussed already. There’s a sharing of overheads. There’s the old argument about if you have six antique shops in a row they’ll all do correspondingly better than if you just have one on each of six villages. So there’s that underlying commercial argument. There’s lots of stuff, but that’s my own. Maybe I’ve overstated it saying it’s the model of the future, but I think for me it’s been by far the best model that I’ve alighted on. It’s been the most enjoyable, it’s the most responsive and flexible to the needs of mediators, in terms of sharing overheads and so on, that kind of thing.


Aled:       I mean, it’s interesting as well, you know, something I said a moment ago about being self-employed, I mean. It does require a different set of skills, be it marketing, be it sales, whatever, networking. But also a difference in a mindset. And I’m guessing, you know, sharing all those responsibilities and concerns with some like minded folk, you know, can be hugely beneficial.


Bill:           Yeah, it’s a huge help.


Aled:       Yeah, beneficial.


Bill:           And partly for the breadth of ideas, but partly just for sharing the burden.


Aled:       Yeah. Okay. All right, choosing the business model.


Bill:           Well, then you’re into building the business itself. I mean, there are so many things you could think about, and I think I often say to mediators, you know, you need to begin with two things. You need to begin with the market, and with yourself. And if we start with the second one first and you begin with yourself, what it is about you that would sell? What’s your ability? Where are your niches? In what way do you or might you have credibility in the field? And credibility doesn’t just come from having done a thousand mediations, it comes from who you are.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           And whether people say to themselves, ‘Yeah, you’re the kind of person that if I was in the middle of a fight I could imagine you having some value to contribute, if you’re there’ They don’t necessarily articulate it like in those words like that.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           But in essence I think what parties are thinking to themselves is, ‘Who the heck is this person? And if they’re kicking around in the middle of my fight are they likely to be helpful?’


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           And not necessarily helpful in a partisan sense, but helpful to getting [inaudible 11:09]. So I think just understanding that credibility is not just about mediator track record, it’s very much about who you are and how you come across, and whether people would want you to be present in a fight, is very important.


Aled:       Yeah. Are we selling ourselves first, or are we selling mediation first?


Bill:           Well, both and.


Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           I don’t think you can separate them, and there is a sense in which lots of mediations could be done by any mediator. They’d be done differently, but they could be done just as successfully.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           So, in that sense, we’re selling the process. But I think in the normal litigation context, which for many is the normal context of their practice, there’s much less need to sell the mediation process now. You’re selling yourself as an individual.


Aled:       Yeah. Okay, and would you say it’s predominantly a referral based business?


Bill:           Referrals from whom?


Aled:       Well, either lawyers, you know, previous . . .


Bill:           It is, it’s a confidence business in the sense that the clients need to have confidence in who you are, and that’s often comes, at least you hope it comes from the fact that you’ve done some work for them before, or they know someone who has. You know, I suppose for the clients it’s a high-risk purchase, because they’re only going to get one maybe two shots at it, and they don’t want to experiment.


Aled:       Yeah, and I was asking about it being a referral, because of something you said earlier on about how do you go about building relationships with people so that they’re willing, and people that you haven’t met before, so that they’re willing to, you know, place a lot of trust in your hands. And I’m wondering if, you know, part of the skills that are really important to cultivate as mediators is that ability to you know build relationships, trusted relationships, quickly and then how do we go about doing that?


Bill:           I think that there are two contexts for it. One is prior to a mediation in the hope of getting an appointment, and the other is once you are mediating. If we’re talking about developing a business, then you’re presumably talking about the former not the latter. The latter is just a part of mediating. Although I think it’s an interesting and important thing to discuss.


The former, it’s very hard, connections are everything. It’s very hard to pick a mediator. Would I pick a mediator off a website? No, not in a million years, not in a million years. I’d phone them up, and I’d say, ‘Tell me about yourself, tell me about how you see mediation.’ I had a call a couple of months ago from a lawyer. He said, ‘Look, you’ve been suggested by the other party. I’ve never used you, talk to me.’ And we had, I don’t know, 45 minutes on the phone, and he asked me lots of very thoughtful questions about how I see mediation, and how I go about it. And some of them were values based questions about what I thought was important. And I thought to myself, I welcomed it. I thought here’s a really intelligent purchaser who wants to get to the bottom of what I or any other mediator will do and think and say, before they spend money. So I think one has to try and get in front of that kind of audience, if you like, in order to develop a business.


And I mentioned earlier that part of the issue’s about you as a mediator, part is about the market.


Aled:       The market, yeah.


Bill:           And I think this brings us in a way onto the second question that’s about the market. And really, for me, that divides into two. One is the situations where people use mediation anyway, and the only question is are they going to use you or someone else.


And the second one, which I’ve done a lot more work than I previously had in the last say, four or five years, is where there is no contemplation of mediation. And actually people don’t want to be mediated, but they’re still in a conflict, so the question is what do they want? And a lot of the religious peace envoy work that I do is in that context, where people have no . . . If I went to these guys and said, ‘You know, do you want a mediation?’ I wouldn’t get through the door. So it’s no good thinking, and I think a lot of mediators think, well, you know, I’ve trained as a mediator, and there are all these conflicts out there, so why on earth can’t the two be connected? And part of the answer is that most people don’t want to be mediated. They wouldn’t mind someone who’ll come and listen to them.


Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           So then you’re partly into language, and you’re partly into what is it that we think we’re trying to do? And I wrote a blog piece a couple of years ago on this, a quick plug for ‘Kluwer’ blog.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           . . about a listening exercise that I’d done in a religious conflict.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           Where I spent two weeks in another country, travelled thousands of miles, talked to hundreds and hundreds of people about the conflict in which they found themselves on behalf of a certain institution. They were so delighted to be listened to, because conflict is very isolating, and they have been in a fight for the best part of a decade now. And they wanted to be heard. So if I’d rocked up and said ‘I’m a mediator, I’ve come to sort things out.’ I’d have been on the next plane home, quite literally. But to come and say, ‘I’ve been asked to come and listen to you guys, tell me how you see this.’ I spent a fortnight just developing relationships and trust. Now if I wanted to do something it’s a whole different ball of wax, because there’s a set of relationships there that are well established. I’ve spent ten hours a day for fourteen days just listening to people, so they know that I’m interested. They know that I’m concerned. They know that I’m not looking just to come in and be a mediator.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           And if they want to take that forward they may or they may not choose to. But if they want to take that forward there’s a platform on which they could do so.


I think the other thing that astonished me is I thought I would have to steer all these people into talking about sorting it out.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           Talking about making peace. I didn’t raise that myself in a single conversation. By giving people space and time to say to me, this is what we’ve been through, this is the problem, this is the agony that we find ourselves in, this is the impact it’s had on our lives and our communities, and everything else. They talked themself out and then they said to me, ‘You know what? We really need to find a way through this.’ And I was able to say, ‘Well, that’s a great idea, I wonder how we could go about that.’ And guess what? They were full of ideas.


So you get away from this notion that the mediator has all the answers. We ride in and we say, ‘We’re the mediator and we’ve come to sort things out.’ And you just go and talk to people. And I’ve done that in a number of communities now, overseas and in this country, where the message is, ‘I’m genuinely’, and you have to be obviously because you can’t fake it, ‘I’m genuinely interested in the situation in which you find yourself, would you be prepared to talk to me?’


Aled:       What a great story. You know, I think, I mean that’s just a really powerful illustration of again, departing from conventional wisdom about this kind of process, and just thinking about, ‘Look, you know, one of the values that are important to me is compassion and empathy. And one of the skills that I’ve cultivated is really listening empathically to people with pain. that’s the value I can bring to this particular situation.’ That’s a really, really powerful story, Bill.


Bill:           But, Aled, my point, I guess, it’s a slightly general or long way of getting to the point, but you asked me about new mediators. You know, everybody says, ‘I’m trained as a mediator and can’t get any work.’ Then they go on to say, ‘But you know what, the world’s full of conflicts, so how come they don’t want to use mediation?’ And the answer is I think because we don’t approach it like a mediator. We approach it, those situations, as if we’re selling something that’s just too pat to develop, i.e., if you’re a new mediator there will be, I guarantee it, some kind of issue in your community. You know, whether to build a new car park on the village green. I mean, Lord knows what it is. Or whether the church should have the pews removed and have seats put in, whether the local shop should close. I don’t know that these things are. But if we rock up and say, ‘We’re mediators’, I think very few people would open the door. But I would be staggered if there weren’t opportunities for mediators in just about every community the length and breadth of the land.


Aled:       Yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean, I mentioned again, in the pre-interview, how I found myself part of a group setting up an initiative in my community, and all of a sudden, the first experience of being part of a group where, you know, there have been different views, different agendas, different concerns, and being able to bring my values into the conversation, and being able to help people say what’s on their minds, say the unsayable in a way that’s enthused with a generosity of spirit. Now I’m not mediating, I’m not saying, ‘Okay, so you know, you start off, no one interrupt.’ I’m just saying, ‘Here’s the kind of spirit that I think we know would be helpful for us to bring to our conversations. What do you think?’


Bill:           But, Ali, you say you’re not mediating, but that’s exactly what you’re doing.


Aled:       Yeah, okay.


Bill:           Going right back to the beginning of our conversation I talked about just being a presence in the middle of people’s fights.


Aled:       Yeah.


Bill:           If you can be a non-anxious presence, and make even some tentative or suggestions about the kind of conversations that might be helpful, nine times out of ten people will bite your fingers off for it.


Aled:       Yeah, I can just see the strap line to a business, the non-anxious presence in the room, what everybody wants.


Bill:           I mean, I’ve nicked the phrase from somewhere, the problem is I can’t remember where.


Aled:       I’m sure it’s some kind of psychodynamic, psychoanalytical that is there . . .


Bill:           I’m sure it will be. Ask my good friend Liz Rivers, she’ll know what the answer is.


Aled:       Okay, all right. Okay, Bill, wow! We’ve covered some ground. It’s been … there’s some real gold dust in here, Bill. I’ve scribbled hundreds of notes, so at some stage I will try and distill down what you’ve been so generous in sharing with me and all the viewers that will be watching this. I really appreciate your time.


And, Bill, it people want to reach out to you, you talked about the . . . what’s the name of the chambers again?


Bill:           Independent Mediators.


Aled:       Independent Mediators, and the blog was Kluwer Blog?




Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           Really, I encourage people to look at that. There’s about 50 to 60 mediators. We’re all based in different countries around the world. And we each blog once a month with some . . in fact, I need to get my next one done . . . with some thoughts from just whatever’s going on in our practice, or whatever’s happened recently, thoughts on mediation. So you do get quite a diversity of opinion.


Aled:       Okay, well if I put those links underneath this interview, so people can go directly to the blog. What’s the best way for people to reach out to you if they want to thank you, or get in touch with you? How best they do that?


Bill:           You can put my email address on the blog if you want.


Aled:       Okay. What’s that?




Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           We didn’t get onto discussing mentors, or mentees. But another time maybe we should, because I had a mentee a few years ago.


Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           I’m just about to take on another one.


Aled:       Okay.


Bill:           And it’s a really, for me as a mentor, a really really enriching experience.


Aled:       Okay, well maybe we schedule a 30-minute slot to talk about mentors/mentees…


Bill:           Yeah, why not.


Aled:       if you’d be willing at another point in time. Okay, well Bill, I want to be the first to say thank you.


Bill:           My pleasure.


Aled:       Thank you very, very much for your time. And will I see you in July?


Bill:           I’m at a lodge now, I can’t go unfortunately.


Aled:       What about the next mediator breakfast?


Bill:           You’ll have to tell me when it is.


Aled:       I’ll have to look that one up. I’ll ping you a little note when it’s coming up.


Bill:           Do that. And listen, thank you. I really enjoyed chatting to you. We’ve been meaning to hook up for coffee. This is the only way any one of us could manage to do it in about a year and a half.


Aled:       Well, we’ll fix some face-to-face time soon.


Bill:           Good.


Aled:       All right. Thanks very much, Bill.


Bill:           Great pleasure.


Aled:       Okay, great.


About the mediator

He is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished ‘top rank’ mediators in the market. He’s been full time in this field for over 20 years and has a thriving mediation practice. The Legal 500 have him down as one of the best in the field. He was for 11 years Executive Director of CEDR. and he’s worked with some of the major ADR organisations across the globe. Before becoming a mediator, he practised as a solicitor in the UK and Paris,... View Mediator