Preparing Clients for Negotiation


Clients have interests, needs, goals, and desires. Some of these cannot be fulfilled by the legal system. You need to help your client sort through all of this so that he or she understands what is possible through negotiation. The trick is to listen to your client deeply.
This is not a skill that is taught in law school. There are places to go to learn how to listen. I strongly recommend to young lawyers that they take a course in coaching, motivational interviewing, or the like. Learning how to probe the client’s true needs and helping the client clarify them is essential in the process of preparing for negotiation.

As you prepare your client for negotiation, be sure to set clear boundaries of responsibility. Who needs to be in the decisional loop? In many cases, the settlement decision affects more than just the direct client. Make sure that you know who has to participate in the decision early on. Have all decision makers and influencers been thoroughly informed about the case, the negotiation, and a range of reasonable outcomes?

Spouses and business partners can easily be forgotten about. It is your job to make sure that they are fully informed, consistent with protecting attorney-client privilege. At the very least, you must inform your client to keep influencers up-to-date on case developments and the negotiation strategy. Again, a letter outlining all of this can be an important protection for you.

Who will be present during the negotiation? Generally speaking, you want all of the decision-makers at the negotiation if the negotiation is in the form of mediation or some other group conference. Sometimes, for strategic or tactical reasons, certain decision-makers might not be physically present. They should be available close by or available by telephone or Skype for consultation as a negotiation unfolds.

Who will have to be present to make a settlement agreement binding? Settlement agreements made during mediation are not binding unless all of the parties have signed the settlement agreement. Therefore, you must take great care to make sure that you know who will have to be present to bind everyone to a deal.

What will be the role of the client during the negotiation? This one is overlooked all the time. Most of the time, you want your client to be an active participant in the negotiation. Sometimes your client will take the lead; sometimes you will take the lead. This should be discussed ahead of time so that there is no confusion over roles during negotiations.

Another related problem has to do with personal accountability. Very few people have the courage to take personal responsibility for their actions. Many times, people will come to lawyers, hoping to shift responsibility for their actions away from themselves. In negotiation, clients are often confronted with the need to take personal responsibility for their actions for the first time. This can be a difficult pill to swallow. A conversation about personal accountability well before negotiation begins is therefore a good idea.

Some clients can become very emotional, often with ample justification. I will give you more information about emotions in the context of decision-making later on. However, recognize that all human beings are 98% emotional and 2% rational. Conflict and stress tend to shut down the prefrontal cortex and activate the emotional centers of the brain. Be prepared to deal with your client’s emotions.

Remember, the best way to win the game is to call it yourself.

Better still, change the game completely.

Douglas E. Noll
Mediator, Author, and
California Lawyer 2012 Attorney of the Year
for Pro Bono Service
Creator of Negotiation Mastery for the Legal Pro
A new online course in cutting-edge legal negotiation


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