By David Washburn
Name: Gregg Relyea
Courses: Alternative Dispute Resolution
There are few of us who possess the kind of courage it takes to walk away from a secure, well-paying job and into the unknown.
That’s what Gregg Relyea did in the 1990s when he resigned his position as a partner for Higgs Fletcher & Mack, one of San Diego’s largest and most prestigious civil litigation firms, and hung out his own shingle as a professional mediator. And over the past 25 years he has built a thriving practice and taught his craft around the world.
And if all that wasn’t enough, this year, he published a children’s book that received rave reviews from the Dalai Lama himself.
How did you get started in your career field?
After 10 years of doing civil litigation, I was asking myself some mid-career questions: Do I like the firm? Yes. Do I like the people I’m working with? Yes. Do I like the kind of work I am doing? Yes. All those questions were leading me toward me staying with the firm.
But then I asked myself a fourth question: Do I want to be doing the same thing for the next 20 years? My answer, which surprised me, was: definitely not. So, I started looking around for other types of work that might fit me better. And 25 years ago, mediation was just coming around the corner, so I took a formal mediation training program. Within 60 minutes of starting that course, I knew for a fact that this was the right fit for me. And it wasn’t like I was abandoning one field for another – I was trading on the skills I’d learned as a civil litigator and using them in the different way.
What did you most enjoy about your profession?
What first comes to mind is you can use your legal background and experience to help other people find a path through their conflict. Usually, the parties are in a lot of turmoil, a lot of pain. They don’t know what direction to go. As a mediator, you don’t dictate the outcome of the case, but you do serve as a guide for people to work through issues so they can find their own best solution.
It’s very challenging intellectually and also very rewarding on a personal level. One of the fun things is that people are very thankful and openly express their gratitude at the end of mediation sessions.
You recently wrote a children’s book (along with Joshua N. Weiss) focused on conflict resolution – how did that come about?
Part of my mediation practice is providing private mediation and training to lawyers and judges at home and abroad. I’ve done extensive mediation training all over Asia, India, the Middle East and Europe. While I was doing those training programs, lawyers and judges would sometimes come up to me and ask if there were any books on the subject for kids.
I did some research, and there were no books on the market for children that specifically taught the skills of conflict resolution. There were thousands of books on being nice, getting along and the importance of resolving conflict. But none of the books focused on how kids can do that – work through their own problems in a constructive and positive way.
The breakthrough aspect of the book (which is called Trouble at the Watering Hole: The Adventures of Emo and Chickie) is that it demonstrates the skills of conflict resolution through a story about animals in a forest fighting over scarce water in a watering hole. It shows the animals using the specialized skills that are time-tested and proven to help people work through their issues. Half of the reviews on Amazon talk about the book being just as helpful to adults as children. It even has an endorsement from the Dalai Lama himself.
What advice would you give someone looking to enter this career field?
There are ways to get started in mediation today. You don’t have to wait for some magic moment in the future.
The main way is to take an alternative dispute resolution class. Then take specialized courses in negotiation and mediation. The next thing people decide to do if they are really interested is a formal mediation training program, which is usually 32 to 40 hours over 4 to 5 days. It’s a full immersion situation with hands-on practice activities.
And while they are taking the formal training class, they can reach out to mediators in the field and ask to observe a mediation, which is a real eye-popping experience. They have none of the stress involved in the case, so they can watch the process from a disinterested perspective and identify and observe the impact of the techniques they have been learning in their classes. Usually mediators are very generous, and will talk to observers before the mediation starts and afterwards, to debrief the process.
How is your field changing?
Right now in California there is no state licensing requirement for mediators. This is because it’s a relatively young field and the state Legislature wanted to encourage people to move into the field without limiting their opportunity. But, as a result, there are no state licensing standards, and many people are mediating cases who have no formal training as mediators.
With the field becoming more popular, the Legislature is getting closer and closer to requiring minimum standards to practice as a mediator. Other states, Florida and Texas being two examples, have extensive regulation of mediation.
What do you like most about teaching for Extension?
The wide range of students that come through the program. Students who are coming directly from university with an academic background, all the way to students with advanced work experience who can bring their experience and practical knowledge into the classroom discussions. I’ve always been immensely impressed with the quality of the students who come through the program.
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