JD Profiles: Nicole Gesher, Mediator and Owner, Gesher Mediation

In this new series, we are profiling legal professionals and J.D.s and asking them the hard questions that don’t always get answered in law school. For example, how did they find their job? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? And, was law school a worthwhile investment?

Nicole Gesher is a San Francisco based mediator and attorney. She founded Gesher Mediation in February of 2010, where she happily helps resolve conflicts for her clients throughout the Bay Area. While relatively new to the ADR scene (she’s not even 30 years old!), Gesher tied for 2nd place in the Individual Mediator/Arbitrator category in the Recorder’s Best Poll (San Francisco based Legal newspaper – results published 12/6) (PDF). She is currently a panelist for the Bar Association of San Francisco, and the Contra Costa County Superior Court. She is also a volunteer mediator for Community Boards, a local non-profit.

RecruiterEsq: Hi Nicole! Thanks for answering questions for us today. Mediation is not a common career path for law students. How did get involved in mediation?

Nicole Gesher: I first became involved in mediation through the Mediation Clinic at Hastings (run through the Civil Justice Clinic). As students, we were taught advanced mediation theory. Then, we were able to put our knowledge to practical use in Small Claims Court in San Francisco. It was a very hands-on program. Right before the judge came in, we’d give a brief explanation of mediation and offer our services free of change to help litigants resolve disputes before the judge heard their case. It was invigorating, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting. And we were on the clock – we had 45 minutes to help the parties come to an agreement. After taking the clinic, I was very interested in pursuing mediation as a career, but it seemed like a difficult thing to do without many years of experience. So I took a 40 hour training with Community Boards, a local non-profit dedicated to helping resolve neighborhood disputes. I became certified with them, and began to volunteer as a mediator on their panel. After a few years of mediating on a volunteer basis, I decided to take the plunge and start charging for my services.

When applying to law schools, did you look for schools that had mediation clinics or was it a mixture of luck and opportunity?

I looked for schools that had clinical programs that would give me real experience with clients and practical applications for what we learned in class. Hastings has a fantastic clinical tradition, and I took two clinics during my time there, the Individual Representation Clinic, and the Mediation Clinic. But if I’m totally honest, I was more excited about living in San Francisco than I was about any particular law school.

Thank you for being honest because I think you brought up a fantastic point. Law school location is an important factor, especially because many people end up working in the region where they attend law school. Back to mediation, however, how do you see the legal landscape changing in terms of alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”)?

I think people are drawn to ADR because of several reasons: cost, efficiency, and a more tailored solution. As a result, I think more and more would-be litigants will pursue ADR first, before they head to court. Many courts already mandate mediation before a judge will even set a trial date – mediation/arbitration is highly encouraged as a way to reduce backlog in the court system.

What types of mediations do you specialize in? (E.g., employment law, contracts, housing, family)

I specialize in civil business disputes, family law, and landlord tenant cases.

There are a few different mediation styles. You describe yours as facilitative. What does that mean?

Basically, as a mediator with a facilitative style, I won’t direct the parties to any particular decision. I’m there to help them, to guide them as needed, but I really believe it’s important to let them drive the process. However, I will certainly offer my opinion if asked or if the parties are at an impasse. I am there to facilitate a conversation between two people for whom open communication has become difficult. Beyond ensuring that the agreement doesn’t contain anything illegal, I strive to keep my own agenda out of their solution.

How long do mediations usually take? What is the process like?

It really depends on the type of case and how many issues there are to resolve. A business partnership dissolution usually requires at least 10 hours of mediation, case management, and agreement writing time. A divorce can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months, depending on whether the couple is amicable, in a rush, if they have children, real estate, etc. I do an intake session with each new set of clients in which I try to identify major issues. But each case is different, so it’s hard to answer how long any mediation takes.

Regardless of which kind of case comes in the door, I try to speak with each party before we meet, and have a conversation about why they are seeking mediation to better understand their expectations. I run them through the legal process, which can be quite regimented for family law cases, or very loose for cases that won’t go through the court system at all. When we meet, I ask each party to speak, voicing their side of the story, and we take it from there together.

You previously worked at one of the top litigation law firms in the country – you were a contract attorney for Quinn Emanuel. You got to see the nitty-gritty realities of litigation. Did this experience strengthen your conviction that mediation is a viable alternative as opposed to litigation?

Working on major litigation projects certainly allowed me to see just how much time and money goes into litigation, often with disappointing results. My work in mediation is much more satisfying, both for my clients and myself. We construct our own solution collaboratively, rather then fighting things out to the bitter end.

What can clients expect from mediation as opposed to litigation? Is mediation only right for individual clients or would clients involved in these huge lawsuits benefit as well from mediation?

I love mediation because it allows a more closely tailored result. I think it’s ideally suited for individual clients, though I think it could be useful for corporate clients as well. However, when engaging in mediation, it’s imperative that the parties trust each other – and this trust can be hard to build across corporate competition (I would imagine).

If a lawyer wanted to learn more about mediation and other ADR topics, what are some good web resources that you recommend?

I think mediate.com is a good place to start. Also, a good 40-hour training is very valuable (and essential) if one plans to mediate. Nothing beats practical experience, though!

What type of technology do you use in your mediation practice (e.g., type of cell phone, cell phone apps, Microsoft Office? SAAS/cloud computing?)

I use a Google Voice account for a phone line (through my cell phone) and I have an online fax number. I also use agreement software, Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Gnu Cash, and Excel.

As a female entrepreneur, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs or female entrepreneurs? Or, what advice do you have for anyone who wants to leave the practice of law but is hesitant.

It can be scary to go out on your own, but if you are passionate about your work, and you can engineer low overhead costs, you can make it work. I kept my old job while I built up my mediation practice, and switched over when I felt like I could earn a living with the mediation. I can say that it’s incredibly rewarding (and sometimes very stressful) to be your own boss – but at the end of the day I own my successes and my failures. It’s really wonderful to love what you do, and I feel that every day. And, as awful as I found law school, my legal education helps me on a daily basis in my mediation practice.

Thank you so much for answering our questions today!

Nicole Gesher is the owner of Gesher Mediation.  She is a California licensed attorney, a Bar Association of San Francisco approved mediator, a Community Boards certified mediator and volunteer, as well as a member of the Contra-Costa County Superior Court ADR Panel. Nicole can be reached on LinkedIn.

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