Copyright © 2010 by Mediation Consultants, LLC

Mediator Licensing and Certification in California
Introduction & Brief History of the Practice of Conflict Resolution

Richard (Rick) Bowers and Nelle Moffett
For a printable PDF version of this article click here
Signup for our monthly Mediation Consultants, LLC and/or Speak Peace newsletter.

January 2010

1 2 3 4 5 next

The process of selecting a mediator can be very confusing and frustrating. How does one go about determining who is best qualified, experienced, or successful? Is there a licensing or certification procedure that ensures that a mediator has met at least minimal standards? This article will discuss the licensing and certification standards in California, the range of training programs available, the definition of terms such as “certificate” and “certified”, and how this information may be used in selecting a mediator for your situation. We will also briefly touch on the pros and cons of licensing.

A Brief History of the Practice of Conflict Resolution

Types of Conflict Resolution. Conflict resolution has been a part of human societies for a long time. In modern American culture, the practice of law ("Lawyer," 2010) is an example of how our society has created a formal structure for peaceful conflict resolution. Attorneys are hired as advocates for each side and, in a sense, “do battle” on behalf of their clients. The role and responsibility of an attorney is to get the best outcome for their clients in a courtroom context that is primarily adversarial: one side against the other where typically one party “wins” and the other party “loses.” This practice provides a basis of rules (laws) for determining how to resolve conflict in a peaceful way that serves the good of society.

Non-courtroom-based forms of conflict resolution have been grouped together under the banner of Alternative Dispute Resolution ("Alternative dispute resolution," 2010). ADR methods include arbitration, negotiation, conciliation, and mediation.

  1. Arbitration provides a neutral third party who hears both sides and determines how to resolve the conflict outside of a court setting.. In binding arbitration, both parties are bound by the arbitrator’s solution. In non-binding arbitration, the arbitrator’s solution is indicative of how a judge/court might rule.

  2. Negotiation is used in conflicts ranging from collective bargaining to global peace talks. In negotiation, the disputants may negotiate directly with each other, or may be represented (e.g., by an attorney).

  3. Conciliation ("Conciliation," 2009) is a process where the parties to a current or future dispute agree to utilize the services of a conciliator, who then meets with the parties separately in an attempt to resolve their differences. The conciliator resolves the conflict by “lowering tensions, improving communications, interpreting issues, providing technical assistance, exploring potential solutions and bringing about a negotiated settlement.”

  4. Mediation, the focus of this article, is the fourth type of Alternative Dispute Resolution. The practice of mediation has been with us for a long time (Seamone, 2000); tribal elders, wise neighbors, etc. have filled the role we today call mediator. A mediator ("Mediation," 2010) is a third party who helps the disputants reach their own agreement. In mediation the parties in the dispute “determine the conditions of any settlements reached— rather than accepting something imposed by a third party.” Mediation is the only alternative dispute method where a third party promotes dialogue and freedom of choice among the disputants in arriving at a solution that meets their unique needs.

Conflict Resolution as a Field of Study. While mediation is not new, the field of conflict resolution as an area of study and professional practice is a recent addition to the formal options of conflict resolution. Conflict Resolution is commonly offered within the field of Communications and also draws heavily from its social science neighbors – Psychology and Sociology. Antioch University McGregor was one of the first universities to offer a graduate degree in conflict resolution, which started in 1992.

Mediation is in its early stages of development as an area of study and professional practice. Consistent with the evolution of other fields, such as Psychology, the early stages of development of a field can seem chaotic as people from various disciplines and backgrounds jump into the new opportunity. Generally at this early stage there are little or no regulations of the field, many disparate professional groups and associations, no articulated standards or code of ethics, and no standardized training or curriculum requirements.

This description of an early stage of development in a field accurately describes the current state of affairs for mediation as a professional method of conflict resolution. This explains why there is so much conflicting information, confusion of terms, and variety of backgrounds and levels of training currently in the field of mediation. With the growing popularity of mediation, there is now a need for some clarity about what currently exists in this new profession.. The intent of this article is to fill this need for clarity in the areas of licensing, certification, and training in mediation, focusing on the state of California as an example.


In the state of California, licensing of mediators does not exist. There is one special case that deserves to be mentioned and that is Family Court. If a divorcing couple is in disagreement regarding children, the Family Code requires the parties to try to resolve their dispute in mediation provided by the court. Family Court mediators (Judicial Council of California, 2010a) are required to have a master’s degree in counseling, social work, or a related field, have at least two years experience working in mental health, know how the family court system works, and also have information about community services. In this example, licensing in counseling or social work is implied.


Before discussing certification we need to provide clarity and definitions for the words ‘certify’, ‘certification,’ ‘certificate,’ and ‘certificate of completion.’

Definition of Terms. A ‘certificate of completion’ is a piece of paper that indicates that an individual has attended a workshop or course that may be offered by a private individual, company, or school. The paper simply confirms that the individual attended the event with a specific name such as “Mediation Nuts & Bolts Training.” The certificate of completion usually indicates the date and the length of the workshop or course, but does not indicate the depth of the curriculum or the level of success of the participant.

The word ‘certificate’ is used by educational institutions to indicate a broad range of programs of study. These institutions may or may not be accredited. The certificate programs generally include more than one course and are counted in credit hour units. Examples of programs which award certificates after successful completion of specified requirements include: 1) short programs from Extended Education, 2) 18 credit hour programs that are less than a two-year Associate of Arts degree, 3) post Bachelor’s degree programs, and 4) post Master’s degree programs. It should be noted that certificate and degree programs in conflict resolution offered by accredited higher education institutions are not at all standardized. Even degree programs at the same level (BA, MA, or PhD) will vary greatly, as will certificate programs at these various levels. In order to compare one program to the next, one needs to look at the number of hours required in the major and the specific courses taken.

The words ‘certify’ and ‘certification’ refer to a process of verifying that an individual has met specific professional standards. These words imply that there is a regulatory or professional standards agency which has set standards for practice and which serves the public good by conferring certification that an individual has met those standards. These agencies may engage in audits or accreditation of educational programs and as well as setting curriculum and resource requirements for these programs. They may also require that individuals pass a separate examination to ensure that the individual has met the required standards. These agencies may also monitor professional ethics and serve as a monitor of complaints against the individual. There may also be some requirement for on-going training and periodic re-certification.

Certification of Mediators. In California, there is no state or professional agency or department that certifies mediators. The absence of a certifying agency along with the variety of training paths taken by mediators presents a dilemma for the consumer. If a mediator claims to be ‘certified,’ let the buyer beware! Having received a ‘certificate of completion’ or been awarded a certificate is not the same as being ‘certified.’ How, then, does one compare the training backgrounds of different mediators to make an informed selection? The next section describes examples of the different types of training programs that are available and clarifies the variations among these types.

1 2 3 4 5 next