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3 Tips for the ABA Negotiation Competition

Mackenzie Drutowski

3 Tips for the ABA Negotiation Competition

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Let me first commend you on your excellent decision to participate in the ABA Negotiation Competition. As you practice with your team and go through back-to-back negotiations in the competition, you will grow both personally and professionally by getting to really know yourself as a negotiator and learning how to play to your strengths, mitigate your weaknesses, and negotiate as part of a team.

I participated in the competition twice, and my partner and I won nationals in 2016. Based on these experiences and the wisdom I received from my coaches as a participant, here are my top three tips for negotiators preparing to participate in this competition.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Most of us probably went to law school because we believe we are naturally strong advocates and negotiators. However, negotiating on behalf of a client and negotiating as part of a team requires thoughtful preparation, even for the best natural negotiator.

The first level of preparation involves deeply understanding the problem as well as the needs and interests of both your client and the other side.

The second level of preparation is thinking through all those core concepts you covered in your law school negotiations class (BATNA, creative solutions, opening offer, reservation point, etc.).You should have the first five minutes of the negotiation down cold by the time you get to the competition. It is essential that you and your partner are really comfortable with the scope of authority you have received from your client because you will likely be pushed to the limit on at least one issue.

The third level of preparation is working with your partner to decide how you will strategically approach the negotiation. Discuss how you will frame the issues, come to a consensus on what your client’s priorities are, and think through how you will order your concessions so you can stay on the same page as the negotiation progresses.

The year my teammate and I won the competition, we had a chart with all the issues that needed to be negotiated. We had our opening offer on one side and our reservation point on the other, and then we tried to come up with as many offers as we could between the two extremes, and we ordered them from best to worst. When competition time came, as the negotiations would progress, we would move across the chart, and we both knew what our next move would be.

This extra preparation helped us to stay in sync and allowed us to think of creative strategies and options that would have been difficult to come up with in the heat of the moment.

Give the Other Side Something They Can Say “Yes” To

As lawyers, we are sent to negotiate because our clients want us to get something done. Remember, the best outcome for both sides is coming to a deal that meets their interests. A deal can only happen if both teams believe they can take the deal back to their client and say they won on the issues that mattered most to the client.

Therefore, to reach a deal, you have to give the other side something they can say “yes” to. Always think about this when you are presenting offers to the other side. Highlight how your offer meets their client’s interests, and when asking for concessions, have a strong explanation and, whenever possible, objective criteria to justify the ask. Providing solid reasoning for the requested concession makes it easier for the other side to say “yes” because they have an explanation they can bring back to their client.

Presenting your proposals this way demonstrates that you understand the other side’s perspective, shows that you want to work with them, and makes it difficult for the other side to push back because you are already demonstrating that your offer is fair and has value for their client. In self-analysis, you should explain how your offers met your client’s interests, but during the negotiation, focus on presenting the information so it is easy for the other side to say “yes.”

Since graduating, I have been working in private equity mergers and acquisitions. Our firm is hired by people who want a deal to happen. In preparing to present a counterproposal to the other side, the senior lawyers are constantly thinking of how they can present their argument in a way that keeps the deal moving forward. Learning to be an effective advocate who is able to communicate and work well with the other side will allow you to go far in this competition and serve you well throughout your legal career.

Grab a Beer

Before each negotiation, I would draw a beer at the top of my notepad. My goal was to get along with the other side well enough that they would want to grab drinks after the competition.

My coaches are diehard advocates of being hard on issues and soft on people. If you are gentle with people, you are able to be fiercer with issues. The most unpleasant and least successful negotiations are the ones where it feels like the other side is just trying to crush you.

On principle, you do not want to concede anything because you do not want to reward their bad behavior. This is good for no one. Do not waste your emotional capital with the other side by interrupting them or being rude; save your capital for the issues. This is not to say you need to be honey-sweet; you should be a strong advocate for your client. If you know the issues, then you can make principled asks, and if you present your offers in a way the other side can say “yes” to, then you can be a strong negotiator who gets great results for your client but also a negotiator who people will respect and maybe even want to have drinks with.

Like most things in life, you will get out of this competition, your teammates, your coaches, and yourself, whatever you put in. Hopefully, these tips are helpful in your preparations.