After putting her legal career on hold to stay home with her children, a volunteer experience with an organization supporting women through divorce led Ellen to her next act, helping couples navigate a split amicably.
Tell us a little about your background…
Almost everyone in my family is an attorney but I never really considered taking the law school entrance exam, always thinking I would be a teacher like my mom. Many of my Smith College friends were taking entrance exams for graduate school and I went along. Indiana University School of Law was rigorous and stressful. When I graduated with my J.D. (Juris Doctor or law degree), I found a job in a small firm in Chicago doing commercial litigation. I enjoyed it and worked hard.
After my first daughter was born, I went back full-time as I had agreed to do. Part-time wasn’t really an option in our busy litigation practice but I persuaded my partner to let me work four full days, still billing full-time hours. After my second daughter was born, I found a different firm where part-time seemed more acceptable. Unfortunately, they merged and merged again, ultimately not really appreciating my part-time schedule.
My husband was traveling more and I made the decision to stay home. My timing was not typical as my children were finishing kindergarten and third grade, a time when many women decide they can handle returning to the work force.
During my time at home, I volunteered on our local PTA Executive Board and School Advisory Council, became a Bat Mitzvah, and tried to find my next calling. My sister had a joint MSW/JD (Master of Social Work and Juris Doctor) and always had jobs I considered much cooler than mine. They involved the social work and helping aspects that practicing law did not. I started volunteering at The Lilac Tree, an organization in Evanston that supports women through the process of divorce.
My good friend, the Executive Director at The Lilac Tree, is the one who encouraged me to take mediation training, saying that social work and psychology were always the missing piece of my career. I completed Family and Divorce Mediation Training through DePaul University Center for Dispute Resolution in 2005, at the age of 48.
What is your next act?
I am a Mediator at CEL & Associates, in partnership with Brian James. I have been mediating almost eight years. The combination of time spent actually in meetings with clients, drafting agreements, learning about divorce and finances, and networking slowly grew to a full-time but flexible job.
I love helping people figure out how to communicate and become better parents for their children because they learn new ways to speak to each other. We always tell our clients that their children are really our clients and our focus. Often, when people make a decision to divorce, they have stopped speaking to each other at all or certainly in a meaningful, productive way. People don’t have to stay married to each other, but they do need to parent the children they have brought into the world and figure out a way to be at soccer games, ballet recitals, high school graduations, and weddings for their children.
How did you go from getting mediation training to becoming a partner in a mediation practice?
After mediation training, I continued to volunteer at The Lilac Tree. I met my business partner Brian there; he had started his own private mediation practice after working as a probation officer in the court system. For him, the fact that I had a law degree gave me credibility; for me, the fact that he had an established practice and years of experience gave him equal credibility. My sister encouraged me to ask him if I could attend a few meetings before agreeing to work with him. I started shadowing him on the job and attending meetings, where he encouraged me to participate and ask questions. We became a co-mediation team.
Mediation is a much better fit for my personality than commercial litigation. Although I still have to attract clients, I know that I am finding people who will genuinely benefit from my expertise. I really love the fact that I mediate full-time and I am always looking for a way to solve a problem instead of the best way to advocate for a client’s position without regard for the other side. I do not have trouble persuading people that mediation is better than litigating a divorce.
Sitting in a room with one’s soon-to-be ex-spouse, myself, and my business partner is much better than the stress and emotional drain, not to mention expense, of depositions and trial. Though only a small percentage of cases actually go to trial, the mindset of litigation is constant stress compared to selling myself as a mediator and making divorce a calmer, more peaceful process. The threshold question for me is whether you can sit in a room with your spouse or ex-spouse and advocate for yourself. If so, mediation is the right approach.
Though the majority of my mediations are divorce, either pre-decree or post-decree parenting issues, mediation really applies in all areas of law, business and life. I once mediated a dispute between sisters who co-owned a building and one wanted to rent her half to another. The mediated issue was whether the back yard common area was included in the rental agreement. We also mediated a medical office dispute where a new doctor was not respecting staff members. Skills for mediation are the same whether a partnership or business dispute, estate planning, family issues, or a divorce.
Why did you choose this path? Did you explore other options?
I always wanted to work while raising my daughters, but the legal jobs I found were in research and writing. I am an extrovert and like being with people. What I liked about practicing law was arguing motions after drafting the pleadings—the thrill of being on trial, talking on the phone to clients and opposing attorneys, and helping people solve problems. The years I was home were a privilege many women don’t have and I definitely appreciated that time with my daughters but I missed having something that was mine.
When I went back to work after my second daughter was born, I co-chaired Part Time Lawyers Network for the Chicago Bar Association and brought speakers to monthly meetings who had found part-time work or persuaded long-time employers to allow reduced hours or flexible work arrangements. This was before everyone had computers and remote access and constant availability with cell phones and email capability. I have always encouraged young women to continue to work if possible or find some way to have something that belongs to them, as opposed to volunteer work in schools or related to their children’s activities.
I’d like to say that I chose, planned and prepared for my next act. After years of volunteer work while raising my daughters and frustration over the process of finding part-time work as an attorney, mediation and the idea of building a practice really became the answer. There was no moment when I realized that this was my goal or dream. The networking, education, marketing, and learning that it took to get me here were difficult but empowering and fulfilling. I am still growing and open to new ideas.
When I started doing divorce and family mediation, my younger daughter was a junior in high school and had the flexibility of a car if I had evening clients and she had a dance class. Many of our clients meet at night because they work during the day. I would not have had the flexibility to work 3-4 evenings a week when my daughters were younger. My husband also traveled for work, often being away one if not two nights per week. I always say women are only as successful at their career as their babysitter or daycare is supportive.
What challenges did you encounter?
In addition to mediation, I had to figure out how to learn as much as I could about divorce law, finances, possible parenting plans, and how to attract clients. Attorneys have continuing legal education requirements, so I took as many classes as I could find in these new areas. Colleagues and potential clients assume that I am or was a divorce attorney, litigating in court in that subject area. Additionally, I was a founding member of The Exclusive Professional Women’s Networking Group (EPWNG), a Chicago area group, which holds monthly meetings as well as social and speaker events; six years in, we are 300 members strong.
A huge transition for me was the realization that networking, having coffee or lunch with a therapist, divorce attorney, or financial planner counts as “work.” Building relationships with other professionals is the only way to attract clients to build a caseload. Everyone has the ability to refer a friend, colleague, or acquaintance to another professional. Women, unlike men, feel more comfortable referring a client to someone they know and trust as an individual.
I used to think that maybe we should have done something differently if we lost clients partway through the mediation process or if they ended up going to litigation. Now that I’ve been conducting mediation for almost eight years, I have the confidence to know that I’ve done my best even if our clients have only begun to communicate with each other in a different or better way. The Jewish religion speaks about Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. I like to say I am making the world a better place, one mitzvah (good deed) at a time.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My best advice is to figure out what you are really good at and passionate about, or what unique skill you have that might benefit others. Use skills or a professional degree that you already have but create a different path for yourself. Obviously, finding a way to make money is an important factor that weighs into the decision for many women returning to the workforce or changing careers. Many women do not have the option of pursuing a passion but need to find the way they can earn the most money with the skills they already have.
What advice do you have for women considering becoming mediators in midlife? What resources do you recommend?
Mediation training is a 40-hour course. Attorneys and mental health professionals are well suited for the training. Major law schools and bar associations offer the training several times a year. While a college degree is sufficient, having a law degree or mental health background in social work or psychology gives credibility to a person completing the training. Mediation training involves education about the process, simulated mediation sessions, and critique by seasoned professionals. There is an advanced one-day course that covers mediation in cases where abuse or domestic violence may be an issue. There is also a more general mediation training but I chose to take Family Mediation to work with people going through the divorce process.
In the Chicago area, mediation training, whether business or family, is offered by DePaul, Northwestern, and Loyola law schools, Center for Conflict Resolution, and the Illinois State Bar Association. For other locations, Google “mediation training” to determine where classes are offered. Today, many law students are required or encouraged to take mediation training as part of their law school curriculum so they graduate with these skills and have experience before taking the Bar Exam and becoming attorneys.
As an attorney, I am also required to take continuing legal education classes—I’ve taken them in collaborative law, finances for divorce, and laws surrounding divorce—so that I stay up to date on changes in the law.
Here are my favorite books for children dealing with divorce:
Kara Kangaroo’s Candy: A Story to Help Children Cope with Divorce by Dr. Leigh Neiman Weisz
Was It the Chocolate Pudding?: A Story For Little Kids About Divorce by Sandra Levins
Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making two homes for your child by Isolina Ricci, Ph. D. (adult and children’s versions).
What’s next for you?
I don’t think I have another next act but am certainly always open to other ways to grow and change my practice. I’m collaboratively trained so that I can be a collaborative attorney in the divorce process. I really like being able to say that I mediate full-time.
Contact Ellen Feldman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-507-3204