mediation and me – my mediation story

This is just a little extract from my new book I’m in the process of writing, on my mediation story.

separation mediation storyI didn’t study mediation until a fair way through my career. At school, the closest I came to learning mediation skills was whenever a fight broke out during football, so pretty much in every game (!), and the teacher had to wade in to untangle a spaghetti junction of mud-caked pupils wrestling on the pitch. Mr. McPate would look us all in the eye until he caught one of us peering back in guilt, and as every inspiring teacher should, would force everyone other than the boy who started the fight to run five laps of the pitch while the poor lad tried to avoid the glare of every sodden, knackered lad trudging past!

In my time studying law, mediation simply wasn’t an option. Totally unheard of. As I write this, only a few universities and schools in Scotland are beginning to wake up to the benefits of teaching mediation, with an under-grad or Masters course in mediation only optional rather than mandatory, and with only a handful of innovative schemes introducing mediation skills to school pupils around the country. Not in my time though.

When I was learning to drive I was told by pretty much every driver I knew, in a knowing, don’t-tell-your-instructor tone emanating from a deep reservoir located just over the hill from the ancient School of Life, that I wouldn’t really begin to learn how to drive until after I’d passed my test. And in a similar way, not long after I’d set off on my travels in family law, a sage mentor of mine imparted some advice that has lived with me ever since: you can take your university degree, learn court craft all you like and develop as an adversarial genius, but in family law, you’ll become a better lawyer if you keep your clients from court. When I heard this advice, I thanked my mentor with a hint of patronising youthfulness, tucked it absently under my court gown, and as many newly-qualified lawyers do, promptly ended up being swept along in the absorbing world of litigation, where instructions to fight their corner from clients wary of your youth, and demands from ever-watchful bosses to squeeze for each file as many scraps as possible from the ever-decreasing legal aid coffers, mixed perfectly like a sweet piña colada with my wish to appear more experienced and talented than, in fact, I was at the time.

And boy did I enjoy it!

Appearing in court for clients, particularly for family clients who’d disclosed to me their innermost, heart-broken thoughts and trusted me, little me, to help mould for them and their kids a new life after separation, for years and years was an absolute joy. Exhilarating. The initial nervousness of appearing in court drifted away bit by bit as the days rolled on, my increasing abilities, court craft, gravitas and gained respect masking oh so easily the underlying darkness of repetition, the comfortable, coffee-ridden negotiations in the faculty room, the fact that with every case it was becoming second-nature to think that I knew pretty much what was in my client’s best interests and how his or her case would go in court. Oh right, this is a parental alienation case, let’s get this before Sheriff Soandso and if he’s in the right mood you’ll be fine! I took this repetition with positive spin, the thought that with the benefit of my experience, my clients would take comfort that I knew what was best for them, even for their children whom I would never meet. I would listen to my client’s positions, use my talents in negotiation and litigation to advance those positions, and try my hardest to ensure those positions were reflected in a successful resolution in correspondence or court. And I’d see my clients go away happy, or sometimes not so happy, I’d charge the fee and move on, my clients themselves shuffling out of my life to continue theirs in the hope that what had been achieved in the process would end up working out.

divorce mediation storyIt took me a fair whack of time, therefore, to come around to a feeling that something just wasn’t quite right, that perhaps my approach in family law wasn’t actually helping very much. I mean, I’ve written elsewhere about the reactions I got from some clients after securing for them a decent result in court. “Yeah I’ve won!”. “Did you see his face?!!”. “Thank God my boy’ll never see that **** again!”. Over time as I worked through case after case, I began to feel that my work particularly in matters concerning kids, was involving actually quite little about the law and a great deal rather about family dynamics, grief, loss, parenting, behaviour in conflict, and much much more, little of which was genuinely part of the conversation in court but which the clients would be left to deal with long after I’d gone from their lives. Over time, something began to wake up inside me. So it was that after 14 years as a family court lawyer, way too long after I’d started off on my journey in law, I began to think that actually, there may well be another way of looking at all these cases flying my way.

And that’s when mediation nuzzled like a rescued puppy onto my lap and I hung up my court gown for the last time.

Now, in case you’re one of my former clients reading this, or perhaps a fellow member of the legal profession I may have sat across from in court over the years, I don’t want you to come away with the impression that those 14 years were a total waste of time, that if only I’d found mediation earlier in my career my time in family law would’ve been way more fruitful.

Instead, perhaps you’ll think as I do that I needed to go through that experience, to appreciate first-hand what happens in the court system where separating couples and parents, faced with insufficient information and a traditional way of how things are done, feel it necessary to fight in the mud like the lads on that football pitch. I needed that, because without those years at what many in the legal profession describe proudly as the “coal face” as though those not litigating family disputes are somehow lesser mortals, I wouldn’t have the peace I have now.

OK yeah, so that sounds fair snooty-nosed doesn’t it? Like I climbed Ben Nevis, sat crossed-legged at the summit until I found enlightenment, and can look down now upon my uneducated peers and mock them as they tread the path I was on myself only a few minutes ago.

If you think that’s what I feel, it’s really ok. I mean, some might suggest that’s fundamental attribution error at work (and learning about that comes in really handy in conflict resolution matters, by the way), but I should say that if you’ve picked up from me already a sense that I’m a little soap-boxy, I’ll take that on the chin. Really. My own fight in the mud since I learned about mediation has been with a top-down established system of civil justice in Scotland, for centuries rooted deeper than the Mariana Trench, and which continues to deem our courts with puff-chested tradition as the primary forum for resolving what really are very private and non-legal issues arising from separation. Every day I fight against that Goliath, work to spread the word about mediating rather than litigating in family disputes, to peel away the layers of a very large onion which has stenched out the room for way too long. So if I come across sometimes as a bit tainted, hopefully you’ll appreciate the path I’m on and come along with me for a bit.

Contact me today for help with mediation, and read my profile for my ongoing work in the world of conflict engagement. To see where my mediation story has got me since I wrote this, take a look at Mediation In Your Pocket.