At a recent symposium on divorce, O.J. Coogler overheard several participants praising "the Coogler method" of family mediation for splintering spouses.

"I thought, 'Hey, that's me," recalls the 65-year-old founder and president of the Family Mediation Association. "I felt rather awed and very grateful that my ideas are catching on so fast."

In a society where one out of two marriages ends in divorce -- often accompanied by emotional and economic traumas in court -- it's not surprising that someone who develops an alternative to the adversary process would become a legend in his own time.

Just six years after Coogler started his organization and word of his method began appearing in the press, divorcing couples around the country are clamoring for mediation services and a new career field is being born.

Unlike the court system, which Coogler says "encourages divorcing spouses to fight," mediation helps the couple "work together to formulate an agreeement that resolves the kinds of issues involved in dissolving a partnership of any kind -- property division, terminating dependency upon the relationship and continuing any ongoing business (like children) initiated by the partnership."

Coogler began devising his family mediation techniques in 1974 after his own divorce. Although he had practiced as an attorney for 22 years, he was still, he says, "angered and appalled at the destructive and expensive ($10,000 for an uncontested divorce) way the court system works."

In his search for a "better way to resolve the divorce conflict," he looked first at arbitration, but rejected it, he says, "because it's just a different kind of adversary process. Like the court system, it relies on having each person tell his or her side, then letting a third party decide the outcome.

"But mediation is a process much more likely to resolve the conflict because it doesn't rely on one side winning and the other losing. Both parties, with the help of the mediator, work out an agreement they can live with.Since they've formulated it together, the likelihood that they will make support payments and live up to other terms increases.

"Our society is changing and coming to the realization that conflict is not resolved by one party overpowering the other -- particularly where children are involved. The two people who will no longer be spouses must still operate as parents. It's more likely they can do this through mediation, which encourages cooperation, rather than the court system, which encourages competition."

One problem in pioneering a new field, he says, is dealing with eager -- and sometimes unscrupulous -- practitioners who declare themselves family mediators and set up a practice without proper training or experience.

"As it stands now, anyone can put up a family-mediator shingle," admits Coogler, whose association has begun a study of standard setting in the emerging field. They hope to have a certification procedure developed by the end of the year.

Coogler has held six mediation training programs for professionals -- mostly in social or behavioral science, mental health and law fields. At the most recent session, last month at the Federal Mediation Building, about 50 people from as far as Texas and California gathered to learn "the Coogler method."

To be accepted for the 20-hour session participants had to have a master's level degree in law or in a behavioral science, or comparable experience. After completing the course, they continue training during a 250-hour practicum supervised by an FMA faculty member. Probably, says Coogler, passing an oral and written exam will be required for certification.

A successful mediator, it would seem, would need the wisdom of Solomon, the sensitivity of Mother Teresa and the agility of a boxing referee. "I never said it was easy," notes Coogler, who says the intensity of constantly dealing with divorcing couples can result in burnout.

"That's why I think mediation is practiced best part-time, in conjunction with a practice -- of law, psychology or whatever -- that includes other types of work. And at this point I don't think it's a field for someone right out of school."

Coogler has currently trained more than 150 mediators, almost a third of whom practice in the Washington area. There are more mediation centers operating in this area than anywhere else in the United States, notes Coogler, "largely because of the interest shown in the Washington area."

Mediation is quicker than the court process, he says, with the average couple needing 10 hours of mediation service. At $40 to $60 an hour (plus about four hours of an attorney's time to draft the agreement), it usually winds up being cheaper, too.

The biggest stumbling blocks to establishing the new profession, Coogler says, are "the knee-jerk reaction of lawyers who think we're involved in the unauthorized practice of law and overcoming public skepticism of something that is not now a norm.

"About 15 states have mediation and conciliation as part of the court process -- most, if not all of which, just dealing with custody issues. I think this is a significant statement about the need for reform in the area of family law."

In the future, Coogler says he'd like to see mediation taught in two places -- law schools and schools of social work. "Mediation," he says, "could be an area of specialty that these practitioner could develop.

"It's such a logical step, so right for our times. In 20 years I'd venture that mediation will be the norm in divorce cases."