Trailblazer Interview with Diane J. Levin, Partnering Solutions

Today is a Red Letter Day! It's special because today is the first edition of the Trailblazer Interviews.

You'll meet some of the most fascinating, talented folks in the ADR world who I call Trailblazers. These women and men have taken mediation and other ADR tools in directions no one ever thought about before. They've enhanced the profession, and our world, with their ground-breaking work. The Trailblazer Interview Series is my way to do a double mitzvah: honor them and bring their wisdom to you.

Today's Trailblazer: Diane J. Levin
Diane J. Levin is a founding principal of Partnering Solutions, LLC, a dispute resolution firm based in the Greater Boston area.

I'm curious. What did you do before your ADR work?

I was a litigator. I worked in a busy general practice firm and handled everything from personal injury to employment discrimination to municipal and public education law, with some probate and family stuff thrown in just to mix it up a little. People who know me now find it hard to believe, but I loved to litigate. I was highly competitive and enjoyed the intellectual challenge of constructing an airtight case, the performance art which constitutes oral argument, and beating the pants off the competition.

I was also fortunate to have a great role model-the attorney who mentored me in those early days. She not only taught me the importance of sound legal reasoning to win the day in court, but she also taught me the value of settlement and the importance of being a skilled negotiator. I learned from her that clients want to get on with their lives. If you can settle a case without going to court, people get results faster-they get to put their past behind them, focus on their future, and move on.

Without realizing it at the time, she taught me the principles of "Getting to Yes"-focusing on interests, using objective criteria in quantifying the value of a claim, creating options for mutual gain. She also reminded me often of how important the people stuff is-that everyone-your own client, opposing counsel and their client-are human beings deserving of respect. Those things have served me in good stead.

What best describes your title and what you do now?

My title these days is "Principal". Nope, I don't work in an elementary school. I'm the founding partner of Partnering Solutions, LLC. My company provides mediation, arbitration, and conflict resolution training services to individuals, families, and organizations.

My own focus is on mediation and training, working primarily with businesses and families, although I'll take virtually any kind of case. Basically if it moves, I'll mediate it. My kids have learned to put up with that. It's the training stuff that really gets me fired up. I love teaching at mediation trainings. It's a blast. I get to hang out with my fellow mediation trainers (who tend to be a fun bunch of folks) and turn people on to valuable life skills that can improve their work, civic and family relationships. How great is that?

What did you do to get your first 5 clients? How did you market then?

I got my first five clients entirely by accident. I had no plan. It just happened. (Kids, don't try this at home-I recommend having a coherent business and marketing plan in place. Don't expect that stuff will just fall into your lap.)

One day I got a phone call out of the blue from a friend of a friend who asked if I was "into that mediation stuff". A nonprofit group she knew of needed conflict resolution training, and she thought of me. At that time I was involved in a lot of volunteer community and nonprofit work. I got to know a lot of people and make contacts. If you do something unusual like mediation, people remember that. Referrals came from those sources. Networking and joining organizations does pay off.

Getting down to brass tacks, what were your initial fees?

My initial fees? Well, when I was a teenager, my mother used to tell me that no one "will buy the cow if they can get the milk for free". I think she was trying to give me advice about men and dating, but since we lived in a rural area when I was growing up, it's equally possible she was trying to give me advice on how to run a dairy.

At any rate, in my very early days I gave away the milk. Sometimes the cow, too. That's not a good business strategy. The problem was that I was known for my nonprofit, community-oriented work. The work that came to me initially was from nonprofits or individuals in dire financial straits. I did the work for nothing or for virtually nothing ($100 as an honorarium for a day of training in one case) to gain experience, build my resume, and increase my network of contacts.

At that time, too, I was only charging $50 an hour for mediation services-and I actually felt guilty about charging that much. I had been so focused on helping people and doing good, and so filled with notions of altruism and social change, that I completely undervalued myself and my services. Not a smart move. Learn from me. Don't ever undervalue yourself as an ADR practitioner. The work we do is valuable and you deserve to get paid for it. Repeat that to yourself each morning twenty times. I have to say though that those good deeds did pay off. I have a great referral network in place, and cultivating those contacts has made a difference.

Which books, websites, organizations helped you get your foot in the door?

Mediation Works, Incorporated; New England Chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution. The Internet has been tremendously helpful.

Mistakes, I've made a few. What do you wish you knew when you started out?

Take your basic mediation training with an established and respected program, which offers supervised mediation opportunities for individuals who successfully complete the training program, and is taught by qualified, experienced mediators who are employed in the field. It gives you a leg up over the competition-you have available to you mentoring and guidance by experienced practitioners, the chance to get mediation experience right away, and the first credentials that you'll need to begin your career.

The first mediation training I took was taught by a professional mediator in a community setting, but this was not a "brand name" training, and the organization which sponsored the training had no existing mediation program. Although I made great friends and invaluable contacts taking this program, I didn't get the boost I needed at the time because the support and opportunity to mediate was simply not there. At the end of the training we were all told not to quit our day jobs, and that was it.

This was over a decade ago, in the days before the Internet made finding information easy. I simply didn't know enough to ask the right questions before signing up for this or any training. My advice to anyone is to become an educated consumer and do your homework before you take any mediation training program. To help make you an educated consumer when it comes to selecting a mediation training program, please check out "What to Look for in a Basic Mediation Training", an article of mine published at Mediate.com at http://mediate.com/articles/levind1.cfm.

Dina Beach Lynch is a Mediator and Workplace Strategist who owns WorkWellTogether.com. Her blog, Mediation Mensch offers guidance about launching a mediation practice.

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