Most civil (noncriminal) disputes can be mediated, including those involving contracts, leases, small business ownership, employment, and divorce. For example, a divorcing couple might mediate to work out a mutually agreeable child custody agreement, or estranged business partners might choose mediation to work out an agreement to divide their business. Nonviolent criminal matters, such as claims of verbal or other personal harassment, can also be successfully mediated.
Although there are hundreds of thousands of laws on the books, many types of common disputes simply do not raise a legal claim that you can take to court. Disputes between family members, employees, or neighbors are sometimes of this type. Fortunately, mediation is available even when courts are not.
For example, a suburban homeowner might find that the formal legal system offers no realistic way to deal with his neighbor's overly bright driveway lights that shine in his bedroom window. The neighbors could mediate the disagreement, however. Mediation gives the participants an opportunity to raise and discuss any issues they might wish to hash out. For example, it might turn out that the neighbor lit his driveway because the homeowner's dog went on his lawn, or because the homeowner's tree was encroaching on his property. Because mediation can handle any number of outstanding gripes or issues, it offers a way to discuss (and solve) the problems underlying a dispute -- and create a truly lasting peace.
To learn more about using mediation, see Mediate, Don't Litigate, by Peter Lovenheim and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).