- Dorothy Thompson
Mediator Certification, Credentialing, and Rosters
Updated April 2013
Certification, credentialing, and rosters are often lumped together under "qualifications," but are actually three completely different concepts. Certification is an official designation that a mediator has met certain standards. Credentialing is the process by which an official or quasi-official body decides what the standard is for a practitioner, and it can also mean the act of obtaining those credentials. Rosters, meanwhile, are the lists of professionals which the roster providers in question have determined to be appropriately credentialed; this may or may not involve any formal certification.
Attorneys and clients who are choosing a mediator need to understand all three of these terms; managers of rosters need much greater understanding of processes of credentialing and certification.
Typical systems for credentialing, certification, and rosters vary depending on which one is under discussion.
Setting credentials for mediators typically involves one or a combination of paper qualifications, performance-based assessment, and experience requirements. Paper qualifications include advanced degrees or other specialized education, or proof that a particular training course has been completed. Performance-based assessment involves either observation in actual cases by an experienced mediator who rates the new mediator's performance according to a series of performance criteria, or a similar observation in a simulated case using actors instead of real parties. Typical criteria include ability to gather information effectively; ability to maintain empathy with difficult parties; ability to remain impartial with parties who do not make this easy; ability to synthesize ideas, to manage the interaction between the parties, and to persuade parties to act in their own best interest. An assessment of substantive knowledge relevant to the particular type of dispute may also be involved (knowledge of child development and of individual and small-business tax law, for instance, are useful to a divorce mediator, but probably not as important to a labor mediator as knowledge of seniority systems, industry practices, and health insurance options).
Certification, as it currently exists, still consists primarily of "certificates" issued by individual training organizations at the end of short training courses in mediation. These certificates have almost no value as proof of anything more than attendance at the course. More rigorous certification standards are set by some voluntary membership organizations, but their reliability varies widely. And specific courts and agencies sometimes "certify" particular mediators, but in this usage that judgment is more akin to placing the mediator on a roster, and standards vary widely. Unlike in law, medicine, or many other older professions, there was not, until recently (as of this 2013 revision), any generally accepted and consistent system for certification of mediators.In recent years, however, the advent of an international NGO specially set up to supervise and accredit national schemes of mediator certification, this has begun to change. The International Mediation Institute is organized to foster the development of performance-based certification for mediators, and maintains a list of organizations around the world which have met its standards for development of their own, culture- and country-specific assessment regime.
Typical rosters of mediators are constructed based on varying combinations of the same criteria used for credentialing. Since performance-based assessment is not yet widely used due to expense and other factors (though over time, the IMI's influence may alter this picture), the focus is typically still on paper qualifications and experience, despite the known limitations and biases of these criteria (see Performance-Based Assessment: A Methodology, for use in selecting, training and evaluating mediators.) Rosters, however, typically combine such screening with a market approach, such as by allowing parties to strike names alternately from a "short list" supplied for a particular case. Some rosters, however, operate by random assignment of a mediator to a particular case once the mediator has been qualified for the roster, while others make purposeful choices on behalf of the parties after querying the parties as to the particular characteristics of the case. There is no overarching system that can be described as "the usual approach." It is also possible for mediation clients to assess at least some of the characteristics for themselves. The most accessible primer on how to do this is still A Consumer Guide to Selecting a Mediator, published by the Alaska Judicial Council (but for the most part useful far beyond that State.)
A typical credentialing system for family mediators might require either a law degree or a graduate degree in social work or a similar discipline, plus satisfactory completion of a 40-hour training course including observed role-play exercises. While this might qualify a mediator for admission to a roster in a local or regional court system handling divorce cases, paradoxically, credentialing for major commercial cases in the same court system may involve fewer steps and fewer specific criteria, on the expectation that the parties in major litigation are experienced "repeat players" well qualified to investigate the possible choices for themselves. A typical roster might consist of several dozen mediators meeting the specified credentials for a particular type of work, all of whom are resident within the geographic area covered by the court's or agency's jurisdiction.
Clients and attorneys need to know how rosters work in order to use them well. Clients and attorneys also need to understand the basics behind credentialing before accepting a supposedly "qualified" individual as necessarily being able to perform the required service, and further need to understand how trivial a "certification" may be, pending the conflict resolution field's wider adoption of robust methods of certification.