What Makes an ADR Practice "Successful"?

The ADR Initiative is about building and growing a successful alternative dispute resolution practice, and of course that invites a pretty important question: how do we define "success" in this field?

Obviously, it's not my place to tell you how you should define success — but in my talks with many ADR professionals over the years, there are some recurring themes that will probably resonate with you, too.

Let me tell you the two components of how I define success in my practice. Stop me if this starts to sound familiar.

1. Doing fulfilling work

I heard there are people in this world who can find a decent-paying job and that's good enough for them. It could be the dullest job in the world, but as long as they're bringing in a regular paycheck, how they spend those 8-10 hours (plus commute) each weekday doesn't matter much.

But let's be honest. That's not most people. Most of us dream of an escape from cubicle nation and if we can't spend our days doing nothing at all like Peter (Ron Livingston) in Office Space, at least we want to be doing something that feels right to us.

Many lawyers feel that way about litigation and the traditional adversarial model in general. It doesn't sit right with us (even if we still think it's needed sometimes), and the more we do it, the more we're itching for a way out. We can be very good at it and still feel it eating away at us. I recently spoke with a 30-year family law litigator who said the job regularly requires her to behave in ways that run counter to her fundamental identity. That's a LOT of time to spend pretending to be somebody you're not!

Then we discover ADR — we take a training course in mediation or collaborative law, for example — and we see a way out. We see a way to apply our skills outside of the adversarial model, in exciting, constructive ways.

If you're a mental health, finance, or other non-attorney professional, it might be a bit different for you, because there's less of that motivation to escape from something — but there's still the push toward helping people in ways that are fulfilling to us as professionals. Fulfillment in your work is just as important for you as it is for anyone else.

2. Earning a living

This is the biggest concern I hear from people who are trying to build an ADR practice. Can I pay the bills?

I get it, I really do. I have four kids, a mortgage, two dogs, and two cats. Paying the bills is VERY important to me. And I do it. Every month. As do many other professionals who no longer set foot in the courtroom — or who do so on a much more limited basis than they used to.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of ADR professionals struggling to pay their bills — plenty who complain that they don't know how to find clients, or they're getting fewer clients than they used to. That might be you. You might have those same questions, which is probably why you're reading this article in the first place. If that is you, don't despair. There's probably a lot you could do to bring in more work and build your practice, and educating people about those opportunities is why I created the ADR Initiative.

As Amy Martell said in her recent podcast interview, "Don't feel that you have to compromise who you are as a human being to make a living." Such a perfect quote that Amy's going to have to forgive me for using frequently, because it cuts right to the core of what I define as success for myself, and what I think many other ADR professionals define as success.

So, when I talk about building and growing a successful ADR practice, that's what I'm talking about: earning a living doing fulfilling work. That's my definition.

What's your definition of a successful ADR practice?