Play to Your Strengths to Build an ADR Practice


By John F. Reed and William L. Weber, Jr.

For most lawyers, practice experience is the cornerstone of their marketing and business development efforts. Potential clients want to know that you have the requisite skills and knowledge in your field, which instills trust when they make the decision to hire you. The same is true for alternative dispute resolution professionals, and despite a few subtle nuances, the keys to success are closer at hand than you might think.

Your Past Is Precedent

The road to becoming a competent and effective mediator, arbitrator, or neutral is paved with the matters that one handles as an advocate. The regularity and repetition of representing parties in disputes (and for judges, overseeing and adjudicating cases from the bench) translate into confidence as well as an understanding of the law and the ability to assess the merits of claims and defenses from the evidence.

Over the course of your career as an advocate, you inevitably build relationships with opposing counsel, co-counsel, colleagues, clients, and judges who watch you demonstrate your skills and develop core competencies.
Hopefully, you’ve favorably impressed these people with your talents and results, and you carried yourself in a way that would allow them to accept you in a dispute resolution role later. These are the foundations on which you build your ADR brand.

Branding Basics

A lawyer’s brand can be distilled into a simple question: what do you want to be known and valued for? The answer comes from the role in which you serve, the context in which you perform your services, the skills you employ in the process, and the style with which you act. For the ADR practitioner, your role is most likely a facilitator and peacemaker, and you execute that function in the context of certain types of matters, industries, geographies, or communities. Your advanced knowledge of dispute resolution techniques and human behaviors informs your unique skills.

These first three elements are essential, but the real differentiator is your style, which is the manner and demeanor you exhibit bring about results. Think about the adverbs one might use to accurately describe how you do what you do – aggressively, creatively, subtly, encouragingly, etc. – they’re the descriptors that should tell your audience what sets you apart, not what makes you like everyone else.

Communicate Impartiality

When it comes down to it, at least two clients are responsible for engaging an ADR practitioner in any given matter. The decision to retain you is a multiparty transaction that requires lawyers and parties on opposites sides to agree – seldom an easy feat. As such, projecting your ability to act impartially and without bias is paramount.

For some ADR professionals who represented both plaintiffs and defendants in their litigation practices (or former judges), it may be a non-issue. For those who exclusively advocated from one side or the other, however, it could pose more of a challenge. Make objectivity a fundamental part of your brand to ensure that perception doesn’t defeat reality.

Help Your Audience Help You

Business development is a series of conversations, not a single exchange, and connections need to be courted. As the suitor, the burden usually falls on you to come up with icebreakers to start the next conversation. Checking in, following up, and calling to say hi really don’t advance relationships, nor is trying to pitch your services when your contact doesn’t have a case that’s ripe for ADR. Finding better conversation fodder will not only generate richer (and more fruitful) conversations but will also differentiate you from your competition.

The concept of the “vanishing jury trial” is well known, and each year statistics from the Michigan State Court Administrative Office confirm that fewer than two percent of all civil cases filed in the state result in a bench or jury trial. Despite the statistics and trends, many ADR professionals find that vast populations of the bar don’t have a solid understanding of dispute resolution practices.

Gauging your audience’s knowledge of ADR techniques and methodologies is a win-win-win proposition. Asking questions about a contacts’ experience with dispute resolution in the cases they’ve handled, the results it yielded, and their impressions of the people and processes involved is a much more substantive dialogue, and the insights you gain inform your business development and marketing strategy.

In the course of the discussion, you can demonstrate your ADR acumen and dexterity combined with subject matter expertise in your contact’s area of law. Ultimately, your audience is better educated and more inclined to pursue dispute resolution options, giving credit to you for that education. Rather than asking people to “remember me” if a need arises, you’ve helped them to recognize the need and put you at the top of their list of go-to resources.

ADR Is a Career Change

There may be a rare exception, but an ADR practice is an attorney’s second legal career, a startup that requires additional training and an expanded skillset beyond those learned in your first go-round. Fortunately, not everything about it is new – the many experiences you encountered and collected as an advocate or judge are valuable assets, and effectively leveraging those existing assets in a different environment is the means for your success.


John F. Reed, Esq., is the founder of Rain BDM, a business development and marketing consultancy that helps law firms of all sizes build outstanding client relationships. The Rain BDM team provides firms in Michigan and across the country with strategic planning, tactical support, content writing and blog management, and outsourced marketing department services. For more information about Rain BDM, please visit or call (855) 790-7246.
William L. Weber, Jr., the founder and Executive Director of Professional Resolution Experts of Michigan (PREMi), has a background in litigation, commercial transactions, and government relations. He was an antitrust trial lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. prior to joining General Motors Legal Staff, where he had numerous roles, including Attorney in Charge of Environmental Law, Assistant General Counsel and Practice Area Manager. Mr. Weber was legal advisor to numerous General Motors committees, including top management, as well as Special Counsel for Legal and Legislative matters. For more information about PREMi, please visit or call (248) 644-0077.