Tag Archives: settlement negotiation

When You’re Negotiating Against A More Powerful Opponent

683bb0e0a142476de0c3bb165379550cOne of my favorite books about negotiation is Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. As the book jacket suggests, it really is “for everyone who has ever worried about what to do in a disagreement or dispute.”

Since I suspect that the majority–if not the vast majority–of negotiations are between parties of unequal bargaining power, I thought it might be interesting to dip into the book and see what Fisher and Ury recommend one do when he/she/it is negotiating against a more powerful opponent. One of the tools the authors advocate in this situation is for a negotiating party to formulate a Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). Just by knowing their BATNA a party becomes empowered in any negotiation.

The easiest way to get a feel for what the authors are talking about is by using their example:

“Consider a wealthy tourist who wants to buy a small brass pot for a modest price from a vendor at the Bombay railroad station. The vendor may be poor, but he is likely to know the market. If he does not sell the pot to this tourist, he can sell it to another. From his experience he can estimate when and for how much he could sell it to someone else. The tourist may be wealthy and ‘powerful,’ but in this negotiation he will be weak indeed unless he knows approximately how much it would cost and how difficult it would be to find a comparable pot elsewhere. He is almost certain either to miss his chance to buy such a pot or to pay too high a price. The tourist’s wealth in no way strengthens his negotiating power. If apparent, it weakens his ability to buy the pot at a low price. In order to convert that wealth into negotiating power, the tourist would have to apply it to learn about the price at which he could buy an equally or more attractive brass pot somewhere else.” (Id. at 107.)

Since I’ve visited the Bombay railroad station–it’s actually called the Victoria Terminus–this was an easy bargaining situation to picture. The authors just left out the part about the cows wandering along the platform. In any event, as they point out, “the relative negotiating power of two parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement.” (Id. at 106.) If you can have a very attractive BATNA, your chips have greater value.

How do you strengthen your BATNA? The authors suggest this “requires three distinct operations: (1) inventing a list of actions you might conceivably take if no agreement is reached; (2) improving some of the more promising ideas and converting them into practical options; and (3) selecting, tentatively, the one option that seems best.” (Id. at 108.)

If we transition this discussion into a familiar setting, the pre-suit mediation of a hypothetical employment dispute, it may become easier to see how the whole BATNA thing might play an important role. Consider, for example, a single plaintiff who has a claim against her employer for gender discrimination. The parties engage in a mediation to see if the case can be resolved before she actually files a lawsuit. The individual employee might be anxious going into the mediation, since her employer is a large corporation with sophisticated lawyers at its disposal (at least they look sophisticated) and both she and her lawyer know it will cost a lot and be an uphill battle to pursue the case if the corporation is not inclined to settle. This sounds like an unequal bargaining position, doesn’t it? If they go in “cold” as it were, hinging their hopes on the corporation’s generosity, they’re likely to get steamrolled into agreeing to a settlement far below full value.

What can they do to enhance their BATNA and take away some of the corporate defendant’s power? Let’s apply the 3 step approach from Getting To Yes. First, the plaintiff and her lawyer “invent a list of actions” they might take if the dispute doesn’t resolve at mediation.  Here are some I invented for them:

  • Go ahead and file a lawsuit and serve aggressive discovery. (True, it’s not very original.)
  • Explore pursuing a class action instead of a single plaintiff case.
  • Aggressively investigate whether there are quality witnesses who will support plaintiff’s case.
  • Propose a second mediation session after the plaintiff has completed some (hopefully damaging) discovery.
  • Associate additional reputable counsel to help level the playing field.
  • Explore forum shopping options. Perhaps the corporation expects a lawsuit would be subject to mandatory arbitration, but the facts or current state of the law weakens the assumption that arbitration will be a suitable forum?

Step 2: “improving some of the more promising ideas and converting them into practical options.” I like the idea of a class action as a practical alternative option to a single plaintiff case. This is bound to put pressure on the corporation, as a class action carries both greater risk and greater expense. How to “improve” this idea? Do some investigation. Talk to plaintiff’s female colleagues. Even if their cases would not be particularly strong if pursued individually, they might have a chance in a class action situation.

Step 3: selecting which option seems best. Let’s assume there is some chance the plaintiff and her lawyer could organize and successfully pursue a class action (but would still prefer to settle her single plaintiff case at mediation), the question becomes whether to share your option with the opponent during the bargaining process. The authors say this:

“The desirability of disclosing your BATNA to the other side depends upon your assessment of the other side’s thinking. If your BATNA is extremely attractive–if you have another customer waiting in the next room–it is in your interest to let the other side know. . . However if your best alternative to a negotiated agreement is worse for you than they think, disclosing it will weaken rather than strengthen your hand.” (Id. at 109.)

Here you will need to make an honest assessment. Is the notion of converting the plaintiff’s case into a class action really just pie-in-the-sky? The corporation’s lawyers are naturally going to wonder, if the plaintiff reveals her class action alternative, why her lawyer isn’t pursuing that in the first place if there’s really a viable class. The corporation, knowing class certification can be a challenge which, if lost, tends to shake out meritless individual claims, might not be particularly cowed by the prospective of a weak class action.

On balance, I would probably not reveal this BATNA to the opposition, even if the plaintiff and her lawyer believe a class action is a viable alternative. What’s important is the actual balance of power, not just the corporation’s perception of the balance of power. Going into the mediation with the knowledge that she has a decent BATNA should give the plaintiff and her lawyer the resolve not to cave too easily.


Demystifying The Notion Of A “Mediator’s Proposal”

hhyygEvery lawyer whose practice includes mediating civil cases is bound at some point to come face to face with the concept of a “mediator’s Proposal,” also called a “mediator’s number.”

Here’s what happens: the parties have been mediating several hours or all day and they’ve reached a stalemate. For sake of example, let’s say that the plaintiff in an employment dispute has reduced her demand to $250,000, but signaled she does not intend to negotiate further without some radical movement by the defendant. At the same time, the defendant employer’s counsel has told the mediator they do not intend to come above $150,000.

At this juncture, the mediator could adjourn the mediation, particularly if she feels the parties have been negotiating in good faith and there are legitimate, insurmountable obstacles to settlement. However, if the mediator believes both sides genuinely would like to resolve the dispute, but just can’t reach a consensus, even after considerable arm-twisting, she may offer to give a “mediator’s number” as a theoretical last-ditch attempt to reach a settlement. (I say theoretical here because most hard-working mediators will continue the process even after the mediation session has adjourned through telephone calls to the lawyers and/or corporate representatives for both sides.)

The mediator meets together with all counsel, but not the parties or corporate representatives. She gives the parties a number at which she thinks the case should settle, recognizing it is going to be less than the plaintiff demands, but more than the defendant is presently willing to offer. In the hypothetical above, the mediator might give $210,000 as her “mediator’s number.” The attorneys consider the number and either recommend to their client that they take or reject the number. Any party that is willing to accept the number advises the mediator confidentially. In this way, if only one side is willing to accept the offer, the other side is not made aware of this fact, which would surely jeopardize the willing party’s ability to credibly negotiate for a more favorable number at some later time. However, if both (all) parties confidentially accept the “mediator’s number,” she advises counsel and a settlement is reached.

I’ve heard of another version of this, in which each party confidentially tells the mediator his/her/its “bottom line” number. If the parties are within a previously agreed upon percentage or dollar amount, the mediator then discloses this spread as a “bracket” and urges the parties to find a meeting place.

I’ve never had a dispute in which the mediator gave a “mediator’s proposal” and the case did not ultimately settle at or near that number. But that doesn’t mean a “mediator’s number” is a good idea in every case. First, if you get a clear impression that the mediator is not completely impartial, then you might get a number that is skewed in favor of your opponent. It’s not always easy to tell if the mediator is biased, since part of her job is to “sit on” both sides in order to get them to come to the table. What you might interpret as evidence of bias might actually be a mediator doing a damn good job.

Second, if you and/or your client are truly entrenched in your position, and you really do not want to pay much more than you’ve offered, a “mediator’s number” could have the adverse effect of giving your opposition some undeserved false hope that her case is worth more than it reasonably should be. Until proven otherwise, I generally expect neutrals, both mediators and arbitrators, to “split the baby” in every instance. Thus, in my example above, I think it is much more likely that the mediator will conjure a number somewhere in the middle between the parties’ respective positions, than that she would give a number that is especially favorable to the defense–even if she thinks the plaintiff’s case stinks. Remember, the mediator’s job is to get the case settled, not make sure the settlement is appropriate to the facts of the case.

Finally, the possibility of a “mediator’s proposal” illustrates a larger point concerning mediation. Just as attorneys come in varying sizes, shapes and skill sets, so do mediators. It pays to be picky when selecting your mediator. Do your homework. This does not mean holding out for a mediator that is bound to be on your side. On the contrary, it can be much more important to have a mediator whose opinions your opponent (and her client) are likely to credit. But you should hold out for someone you reasonably expect will work hard to settle the case.


Is It Ever A Good Idea to Use a Transformative Mediator?

An article in the June issue of For the Defense offers guidance on selecting the best mediator for a particular case.  Among the different styles of mediator (evaluative, facilitate, hybrid), one that is often overlooked is a style denominated as the “transformative” mediator.  Why is this style disfavored?  I decided to dig a little deeper.

According to the oracle of all truth, Wikipedia, “the transformative approach . . . takes an essentially social/communicative view of human conflict, [in which]  . . . a conflict represents first and foremost a crisis in some human interaction—an interactional crisis with a somewhat common and predictable character. Specifically, the occurrence of conflict tends to destabilize the parties’ experience of both self and other, so that the parties interact in ways that are both more vulnerable and more self-absorbed than they did before the conflict. Further, these negative dynamics often feed into each other on all sides as the parties interact, in a vicious circle that intensifies each party’s sense of weakness and self-absorption. As a result, the interaction between the parties quickly degenerates and assumes a mutually destructive, alienating, and dehumanizing character.”*

This all very Heideggerian and existential, but will it settle cases?  Well, it seems that may not be the only goal.  “Success is measured not by settlement per se but by party shifts toward personal strength, interpersonal responsiveness and constructive interaction. As parties talk together and listen to each other, they build new understandings of themselves and their situation, critically examine the possibilities, and make their own decisions. Those decisions can include settlement agreements, but no one is coerced into any decision or agreement. The outcomes are entirely in the parties’ own hands and subject to their own choices. Effective mediator practice is focused on supporting empowerment and recognition shifts, by allowing and encouraging party deliberation and decision-making, and inter-party perspective-taking, in various ways.”*

There might be something to this.  In my experience mediating disputes that are particularly emotionally charged, attorneys can walk away quite satisfied with a clean, buttoned-up settlement, but the parties themselves come away feeling they “sold” their case too cheaply (or “bought” their peace at an unfair price).  Mediations that dispense too quickly with the “heart” of the dispute and rush into exchanging dollar figures based purely on estimates of damages or jury verdict potential can leave plaintiffs feeling like they haven’t been heard.  While a fat settlement can sound appealing, it usually won’t heal all wounds.  This is particularly true in catastrophic cases involving the loss of a loved one or legitimate sexual harassment suits where the plaintiff feels he or she was just “bought off,” or paid to shut up. 

Other cases can be difficult to settle where (1) there is no real money available to fund a satisfactory settlement; or (2) there are residual questions that need answers money can’t buy (“What caused the car to catch on fire?” or “Why wasn’t he fired long ago if others complained?”)  Taking the “usual” approach, focusing purely on dollars and cents, might not get the job done.  In these circumstances, it can be very healthy and helpful for the mediator to engage in the kind of counseling approach unique to transformative mediation.  I’ve also been involved in cases (some very serious) that went away with no exchange of money where the defendant’s counsel or a knowledgeable employee took the time to explain to grieving parties exactly what happened and how it happened.  Plaintiffs may want most of all just to vent frustration or anger.  A party that feels he/she has been finally “heard” can be more reasonable, making it possible to settle an otherwise impossible case to settle.

Transformative mediators certainly are not appropriate to every dispute.  For example, when I’ve accompanied very skilled or sophisticated client representatives to mediations, they look for ways to control the negotiation process, and can be incapable of suspending the factual or legal controversy long enough to permit a wounded plaintiff simply to be heard.  They want only to drive home the point that the plaintiff is wrong and she will lose at trial.  In this environment, neither the plaintiff nor the defendant will believe their needs are being met and compromise becomes unlikely.

Citing, Bush, R. A. B., & Pope, S. G. , “Changing the quality of conflict interaction: The principles and practice of transformative mediation,” Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 3(1), 67-96.


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