Careers in Arbitration: Finding Your Niche

Law@Pepperdine asked Thomas J. StipanowichWilliam H. Webster Chair in Dispute Resolution and Professor of Law at Pepperdine University, and Associate Dean of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, to discuss careers after earning an MDR degree. Here are his thoughts regarding opportunities in arbitration.

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Today, binding arbitration—in which controversies are heard and decided by private judges outside the court system—is often utilized to resolve business, employment, and consumer disputes. Until recently, few people considered an arbitration career outside the labor field. Commercial arbitrators were typically practicing lawyers who thought of voluntary arbitration work as a way of “giving back.” 

That’s changed during the last 40 years. Today, many lawyers—especially litigators—think of becoming mediators or arbitrators as a second career, usually after decades in practice. Some are able to earn significant salaries as mediators or arbitrators, though a recent survey of experienced arbitrators indicates that most of them would like to have more business.

The typical arbitrator in commercial or business practice is an experienced lawyer or judge. Other commercial arbitrators are invariably people who have established themselves in business—for example, the construction industry—or have developed special professional qualifications, such as accountants or health care professionals. All of them build careers as arbitrators in addition to another career and build upon a well-known reputation. Even employment arbitrators tend to be experienced lawyers or human resources specialists.

There are a few forms of arbitration in which a prior career is not a requisite. However, this kind of service by itself is unlikely to support a career and may or may not lead to a more expansive role as a commercial arbitrator. Those considering a career in which arbitration plays a role should think about what a pathway to that work would be. Do you have a niche or specialty you could build on? Are there other professional activities you could combine with work as an arbitrator, including work as a mediator, that would contribute to a flourishing career?

Like many careers, a successful one that uses the skills of arbitration and mediation often develops over a number of years.

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Citation for this content: Pepperdine Law's online Master of Dispute Resolution program