Legal Aid may have gone for a lot of Family and Children legal matters but there are still other avenues to consider to complement your Family Law background.
In this article Austin Chessell from FAMIA will share his experience of how to move into Family Mediation and some of the challenges and liabilities he faces as a Family Mediator.
Shifting the Weight of your Experience:
What training, soft skills and otherwise, do you need to develop as a family practitioner in a post Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders world.
I have been involved in the field of Family Law sector since 2005.
In 2010 I wanted to not just work as a Family Solicitor. I wanted the challenge of working with separating couples not just individuals. I wanted to work with separating couples that focused on the families’ interests rather than having fixed positions.
I looked into how this could be achieved and decided to train as a Family Mediator. A lot of Family Solicitors or Counsellors move into the field of Family Mediation.
Five years on I am now doing more work as a Family Mediator than as a Family Solicitor.
The foundation training costs around £2,500. If your firm is not willing to pay this then you might wish to consider funding this yourself and then being reimbursed when you start to see clients.
Once you have started to mediate then you can build on your mediation knowledge. A lot of the families I work with have an international element to their issue so it is important to keep up to date in this area.
If you enjoy working with children then you should consider doing the Direct Consultation with Children course.
Once you complete your accreditation you may want to be a supervisor and undertake Professional Practice Consultant (PPC) training. I completed the PPC training last year and I am working with several supervisees who are working towards accreditation.
An Out-of-court Options Update
I am working with several families at the moment in mediation where they feel that communication has broken down and also one or both of them feel that there is no trust.
The first session was used for the separating couples to discuss strategies on how communication and trust can be worked on and improved even before we started to discuss childcare and financial matters.
The courts are becoming aware how important a role Family Mediators can play in helping to resolve family matters out of court. I am involved with schemes at the Central Family Court and Barnet Family Court where, for cases having the first hearing, the courts are trying to encourage the separating couple to try mediation if both clients are willing and the matter is appropriate for the mediation process.
I am pleased that I went on an online mediation training course with Stephen Anderson. I am getting more and more clients where one client is not based in London. I have used Skype for clients.
Last month I did a Skype mediation for a client based in Ireland who had a disability and another case where a mother lives in Hong Kong to focus on financial and children matters. Make sure you do a test Skype mediation call before the actual mediation if you are doing a Skype mediation session.
I notice more recently that Solicitors are looking at ways to regularly work with mediators. I am part of the scheme with Dialogue First where clients choose this process. The clients have a Solicitor assigned to them. The clients can then seek legal advice from their Solicitor after each Mediation session.
Clients come to mediation having a general knowledge that if they can resolve matters in mediation it is generally a cheaper, quicker and less adversarial process than going to court. The last few years clients seem to be more informed of what mediation is and how it works before I meet them.
If mediation does not resolve on every matter then there is the possibility for the matter to be referred to arbitration if both clients want this to happen for a binding decision. I am looking forward to discussing Family Mediation and Arbitration with Charmaine Hast from Wedlake Bell on 16th March at the Solicitors Journal live event.
The Unbundling of Services: Challenges and Liabilities
In mediation you ask screening questions with each client at the start of the process to try and establish which cases are not appropriate for mediation.
Recent examples of mediation matters that have not proceeded are where one client to the mediation process did not want to make a full financial disclosure of their assets and the other client believed that some assets were being hidden.
It can also sometimes be a challenge where one client wants to see you for a shortened Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM). If a client has attended a MIAM before with another service then I may do a shorter MIAM but if it is a client who is new to mediation I explain that most clients I see for a MIAM to do it properly takes around 45 minutes to an hour.
Some mediation cases where Lawyers are present, it is sometimes a case of if the clients need some space with just them and the mediators and no Lawyers to let the Lawyers know this. You need to do what is right for the clients.
Most of my Family Mediation cases work on the model of 90-minute joint sessions but half a day and full day mediation sessions are possible if the clients have a court case taking place very soon.
It can be quite expensive at the start of the mediation journey with the mediation foundation course fee and regular supervision meetings.
It takes time to build up a mediation caseload. Find time to create a plan of how many clients you would like to work with and decide what action and networking needs to be done to achieve this.
My plan is always changing but if you have a plan you have something to aim for. Marketing can often take place outside of work hours so if you are attending breakfast events or late night networking, aim to attend events that you enjoy being at. I tend to find having a chat with one to two people works better rather than going round the whole room to aim to speak to everyone, but again you need to find a networking strategy that works for you.
I am now working at a fixed office in Angel at the Business Design Centre for Family Mediation meetings. Five years ago I used to rent rooms in offices over several offices across London. This was good initially to keep the room hire costs down but I found that a lot of time in the day would be lost travelling from North, East and Central London so I now aim to get clients to meet me at one location.
Make sure that you have mediation insurance in place and that you have the right level of cover especially for financial mediation matters.
Other Areas of Law that Family Practitioners could Work in to Strengthen their Skillset
I have been able to diversify my Family Law skill set by undertaking training to become a Collaborative Family Solicitor and Family Mediator.
I want to be known as a specialist Solicitor and Mediator. A lot of clients when they come to you, want to work with someone is a specialist in their area. I think it is harder to get this message across if you work in lots of areas of law.
In Family Law I work within the areas of divorce, finances, children, relocation, pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, domestic violence and child abduction.
In Family Mediation the matters, I tend to cover are how the divorce will commence and who is the Petitioner, childcare, finances, direct consultations with children, grandparents wanting to see their grandchildren and also LGBT families.
Thinking Ahead if you want to Become a Family Mediator
If you are thinking of becoming a Family Mediator do your research. Make sure that the foundation course you are signing up for will be recognised when you apply for accreditation.
Before you start to mediate you will need to observe some mediations and also do some co-mediation hours. See what opportunities are available for this. I found that I had more opportunities to observe and co-mediate by contacting mediation services outside of London.
Try to find a PPC who you are comfortable working with.
When I started mediating, I found that I had to ask a lot of practical questions and when I started mediating with clients the questions I had were more about dealing with the client and the process. Make sure that the PPC has time to supervise you as sometimes you may need to speak to the PPC urgently.
If you do not have enough cases to be accredited then you might need to consider whether you charge mediation clients less than other local mediation practices or co-mediate on a pro-bono basis with an established mediator.
Once you become accredited a lot more opportunities become available. Getting the accreditation for me has been my biggest challenge as a mediator. It took around two years for me to get the required cases for the portfolio.
If you are from a legal background you may want to consider going on a level 2 and / or 3 Counselling diploma course. I found this course very helpful when writing up my reflections for the mediation portfolio.
I have written several Family Mediation updates for Solicitors Journal since 2011 covering some of the above in more detail. These articles should still be available on the Solicitors Journal website to help with your Family Mediation journey.
Austin Chessell is an accredited Family and Child Mediator at FAMIA (www.famia.co.uk) across Inner and Greater London. Austin is also a Professional Practice Consultant.
Austin is a Collaborative Family Solicitor at Feltons Solicitors in Knightsbridge.