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Conversations with Winter Wheeler

Hi Winter, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I have been an attorney and litigator since 2006. As a young attorney in South Florida, I was thankfully given many opportunities to litigate my cases to conclusion on my own and that frequently involved mediation. I absolutely fell in love with the process of mediation and I realized very quickly that I wanted to be a mediator. A mentor encouraged me to vary my legal practice as much as possible and to develop multiple areas of expertise. I did just that. Once I had identified mediation as my passion, I spent the next 13 plus years meticulously ensuring that I had the right training, from the right people, in the right areas of law. Every decision that I made, every job that I took, and law firm at which I worked, was selected for very specific reasons that would ultimately make me a well-rounded mediator. This included ongoing, in-person relationship building with colleagues and mentors.

Fast forward to September 2019, and I was a successful senior attorney at a large, prestigious law firm in Midtown Atlanta. I loved being a litigator but remained cognizant that my ultimate goal did not lie in partnership in a law firm. I still wanted to be a mediator, so despite having a truly enviable career, I knew that I would be unsatisfied until I had made that goal a reality. I took stock of my immediate situation and opportunities, and because I had done a fantastic job over the years of varying my practice and making solid business contacts, I determined that the time was right to make the change. I reached out to a colleague who had also made the switch to mediation and who also happened to be affiliated with the mediation firm with which I was hoping to associate as well. Before I knew it, I had been invited to join the prominent group of mediators and I was truly elated. But despite having been offered an opportunity to live out my dream, I remained hesitant to leave my life as a litigator.

So, while I knew what I wanted to do and had taken all of the practical steps to get there, I could not force myself to finally make the leap. Although my goal was right on the horizon, I was crippled by the notion that because I had worked so hard for my litigation career that I should not simply abandon it. I was also aware that my stance on this did not make logical sense considering my ultimate objective, but I persisted in this notion. While I was grappling with this apparent dichotomy, I continued to reach out to my network and discuss my thoughts, concerns, and fears. A dear friend sent me a meme that posed a simple question: What small thing could you do today that would change your entire life? My immediate, silent, internal response was that I needed to focus 100% of my energy on pursuing my mediation career. It was time to resign from the law firm. Of course, I ignored that inner voice and decided to try continuing to litigate while also mediating. Suddenly, I was considering maintaining two full-time careers. I was not sure how that would work out practically, but I was certainly willing to try.

During October 2019, I worked hard to convince myself that I could successfully double my career-load. But I knew all the while that doing so was neither advisable nor feasible. In addition to my career, I am a wife and mother of four young children. But I continued down this path and spent a good deal of time trying to establish new work and home processes that would enable me to balance my duties at the law firm, to my family, and my obligation to myself to work as hard as possible to build my mediation career. The mere thought of taking on so much work caused me severe anxiety. I was gripped with fear that I would not be able to manage it all successfully, but I was still hesitant to make the leap to full-time mediator. Looking back, I know that I was subconsciously hoping that something would happen to give me no choice but to leave the law firm. Well, something did happen and far more quickly than I could have ever imagined. While excitedly telling a senior partner about my endeavors, I was met with an onslaught of nasty rhetoric.

In a nutshell, she told me that I would never be a successful mediator because she personally did not know of one and that I was less valuable to the law firm if I was spending time building a client base for my mediation practice. She said this despite the fact that the law firm would have profited directly from my mediation practice. Thankfully, this woman’s opinion did not mean much to me, so my feelings were not hurt, but the interaction made clear that the law firm was no longer the right working environment for me. Immediately after that conversation, I went to my office, called my husband, and told him I was resigning from the law firm. His response was an audible sigh of relief. I prepared my resignation and instead of bothering to draft a formal letter as I typically would have, I simply sent an email.

As of November 1, 2019, I was no longer an employee. For the first time in my life, I was going to be marketing my own business. I threw myself into formal mediator training. I took a number of classes and was sure to shadow several mediators in different states. I worked nonstop. I became a Georgia Supreme Court registered mediator and I was ready to get working. Amazingly, and somewhat unexpectedly, I started to book mediations right away. My dream of being a full-time mediator had come true, and I could not have been happier. In addition to a career I loved, I also had more free time to spend with my family and friends. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was in the right place.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
COVID-19 prompted the immediate and nearly total shutdown of Atlanta. As of March 16, 2020, I was on lockdown at home with my family. Officials initially said that we would need to be home for just two weeks and then things would get back to normal. I hated the thought of the city closing because I had client meetings scheduled for those two weeks, but I was hopeful that I could reschedule those appointments in the immediate future. But the estimated two weeks of lockdown turned into months. The mediation firm with which I was affiliated was closed to in-person appointments and I was faced with the possibility of a spate of canceled mediations. I was devastated because I had been working, pushing, hoping, and praying so hard. Things were finally coming to fruition and going really, really well.

And suddenly, there was an indefinite pause stretched out ahead of me. I was struck with an overwhelming, paralyzing fear that everything I had worked for would just vanish. It turned out to be an irrational fear, but of course, I had no way of knowing that in the moment. I could feel myself growing sadder by the day, so I stopped and took stock of what was most important to me and what I still had going on. Most importantly, I had my family. Ceasing to practice law meant that I had more time to spend with my children, and since COVID-19 had led to the entire family being at home together all the time, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to simply enjoy them. Focusing on them drastically improved my mood, but I just was not the same person when I was unable to work. I knew I had to pick myself up and keep trying to network and bring in business. Before I fell into a full-on depression, mediators were able to switch to an online video conferencing system to continue our work.

While much of Atlanta had re-opened by May and June, a lot of people did not want to go out for non-essential trips, so my in-person networking efforts were over for all intents and purposes. Attorneys were skeptical of the new video conferencing system and thought that mediation would not be as fruitful a process as it always had been in-person. Plus, those of us living in Atlanta was still under the impression that we would all get back to normal, in-person work sooner rather than later. Many attorneys just assumed they could wait until things returned to normal and they would schedule their mediations at that time. I was left with the question of how to show attorneys that videoconferencing would and did, in fact, work for mediation. Since we were unable to meet in person and I needed a way to reach large numbers of attorneys at a time, I developed a webinar series entitled, “Tips and Tricks for Virtual Mediation.” I packaged it and offered it to individual law firms, being sure to tailor the presentation to meet the needs of each firm. I had effectively replaced my 2020 business plan lunch-and-learn goal with a much better opportunity. I reached many more people than a lunch-and-learn ever would have allowed and I could put the webinars on for free. Win-win. Virtual mediations took off after that and I was back in business.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from other I am a mediator, arbitrator, and civil litigator. What sets me apart from other dispute resolution professionals is that I have a natural ability to get to the heart of the matter. I can read subconscious cues, help parties communicate effectively, help parties understand what both they and their adversaries want, and bridge the gap between them to find common ground. I have an uncanny ability to connect with people and understand exactly what they need in order to feel seen and heard.

Furthermore, I am well-versed in several practice areas, while most mediators are far more limited: – Wrongful Death – Catastrophic Industry – Premises Liability – Nursing Home – Legal Malpractice -Medical Malpractice – Product Liability – Toxic Tort – Trucking – Auto – Civil Rights – 1983 Actions – Defamation -Municipal Liability – Residential Water Intrusion – Construction defects – Contracts – Workers Compensation -Entertainment – Family Law and domestic violence. I also speak Spanish.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
My husband, Thomas Young, deserves a lot of credit for my career success. He is always ready to do whatever it takes to support my dreams. He has always believed in me and will always be my biggest fan.

 Contact Info:

Image Credits
Adam Bissonette |

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