Become an Arbitrator: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become an arbitrator. Research the various job duties and suggested education, in addition to finding out about the licensure and experience required for starting a career in arbitration.

Should I Become an Arbitrator?

Arbitration enables opposing parties to settle a dispute out of court. An arbitrator, working independently or as part of a small panel, holds hearings, reviews evidence and renders decisions. These proceedings are very similar to a trial, but more private and less formal. Travel to neutral sites might be required. This position is often part-time or as needed.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree sometimes suitable; graduate degree in law or MBA common
Degree Fields Graduate programs in conflict resolution or law are especially relevant
Licensing Some states require arbitrators to be licensed attorneys; licensing is also necessary to gain adequate work experience in other regulated industries, like real estate or construction
Experience 5-10 years of experience practicing law or working in a related industry
Key Skills Decisiveness, strong reasoning ability and communication skills
Salary (2014) $57,180 annually (median salary for all arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, State government websites, American Arbitration Association

Step 1: Get a Bachelor's Degree

Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step toward a career in arbitration. Prospective students might choose a major that can prepare them to acquire the legal or industry experience necessary for a career in this field; many arbitrators are highly experienced lawyers or business professionals who have extensive knowledge of a particular industry or body of law. Arbitration specialties include construction, real estate, insurance and labor relations. Relevant degrees could include business programs or those that prepare students for law school, such as political science, English or history majors.

Success Tip:

  • Seek out extracurricular activities. Students can develop their communication skills and hone their ability to frame issues from multiple viewpoints by joining debate clubs. Serving as a leader of a student organization could also provide students with opportunities to develop their decision-making abilities.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree or Certificate

Since arbitrators are generally drawn from the ranks of experienced attorneys and business professionals, a Juris Doctor (JD) or Master of Business Administration (MBA) could prove to be the most relevant graduate degree option. Normally, a law degree takes three years to complete, while an MBA can be earned in two years. Both program types provide a broad professional education. Law schools, however, generally offer more opportunities to begin specializing in arbitration. They often have dispute resolution certificate or master's degree programs that can be completed while earning a JD.

Earning a stand-alone master's degree or graduate certificate in dispute resolution could also provide relevant training for an arbitration career. Coursework can cover theories of conflict resolution, cultural issues and practical strategies. Many include an internship or practicum to provide students with real-world experience handling disputes.

Step 3: Get Licensed

Aspiring arbitrators who choose to prepare for this career by practicing law need to become licensed attorneys once they complete law school. State requirements vary, but licensure is usually achieved after earning a law degree, applying for admission to the state bar association and passing the bar exam. Others who hope to specialize in such industries as construction or real estate will also need state-issued licenses in order to begin acquiring work experience as real estate agents, contractors or architects, for example. This usually entails meeting a state's combination of education, experience and exam requirements.

Step 4: Gain Legal or Industry Experience

A key qualification for arbitrators is expertise in the industry or legal specialty in which they will handle disputes. Aspiring arbitrators should expect to spend several years practicing law or working in a business, government agency or other organization. The amount of experience required varies widely; applicants for arbitration rosters and panels could need anywhere from 5-15 years of related work experience.

Step 5: Join a Panel or Roster

Arbitrators typically find work by belonging to panels or rosters. These are listings of prescreened arbitrators who've been vetted or certified by a state court or professional arbitration association to serve in various specialty areas. These lists are provided to parties entering the arbitration process.

The processes and standards for joining vary. Arbitrators applying to some state court rosters could need to submit proof of up to ten years of membership with the state bar, while other states admit applicants provided they can demonstrate adequate work experience via references and written samples of arbitration awards.

Professional organizations generally demand 5-10 years of experience in legal, professional or business settings. Organizations like the American Arbitration Association (AAA) also require some experience in arbitration or other forms of dispute resolution and three letters of recommendation. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which handles labor management disputes, requires applicants to submit five references and five prior arbitration decisions, or two decisions for applicants who've completed the FMCS's 40-hour training course.

Step 6: Meet Continuing Education Requirements

Some arbitrators are subject to continuing education requirements. Members of the AAA roster, for example, must complete two and a half hours of approved training every year. Additionally, those who continue their law careers while serving as arbitrators might need to fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain their licenses. Other professionals, such as real estate agents and architects, will also need to renew their credentials at regular intervals.

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