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Penn State Law students hone negotiation skills through competing in marathon


Students receive feedback from trained negotiator David Fitzsimons '84.Despite the early Saturday morning rain and clouds that dripped with invitation to stay inside, a group of forty Penn State Law students and fifteen lawyers recently gathered at Lewis Katz Hall in Carlisle for an all-day marathon – not to train physically but mentally in the Third Annual Negotiation Marathon, created by Professor Nancy Welsh.

This year’s event, organized by Welsh and Joseph Barrett, alternative dispute resolution coordinator for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, was held on March 24. The Honorable Christopher C. Conner ’82, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, delivered the keynote. “The day is set up to foster students’ development as legal negotiators, not to announce one winner at the end,” Welsh said, addressing the “judges” during opening remarks.

Prior to the event, students received information that they used in two, one-on-one negotiation sessions and a final mediation session, using an evolving fact pattern. Throughout the day, the students received feedback on their performances and were “coached” by talented and trusted negotiators on how they could sharpen their negotiation and mediation skills.

Nearly half of the student participants, like third-year law student Austin Monroe, have taken the Negotiations/Mediations class with Welsh. “We’ve been reading [about negotiations], and we’ve been taught how to do it, but eventually you’re just like, ‘let me go try it,’” said Monroe. “And we get to do it in front of people who are professionals, so it was a great experience. I think in the class we only get two critiqued negotiations, and we just got three in one day. I really enjoyed it.”

Round One

The fact pattern for the first round of negotiations involved an individual with an idea for cabbage pizza and a health foods grocery store. Students represent the individual or the store and have 45 minutes to negotiate the problem with the other student in the room. All of the fact patterns are confidential and neither side receives the other side’s facts.

“Students must pay attention to everything from the inflection in their voice to the height of their chair. That’s how negotiations work,” said Michael Hund with McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC in Harrisburg, after judging the first round. “It’s a lot of practice. People think negotiating is something that comes naturally, but I don’t think it does. There are some people who may be better at it naturally, but it’s something you just have to work at.”

Round Two

The second round of negotiations had a new fact pattern. The health foods grocery store was still involved, but this time the store was negotiating with an advertising agency after a failed spinach pizza advertising campaign.

“It’s highly stressful from the start, but when you start negotiating, it feels as if you’re actually in the simulation. You’re actually negotiating with the other partner,” said Sarah Tanyhill ’13, after her second round of negotiations. “I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good experience.”

The evaluators’ most common piece of advice to negotiation participants after the first two rounds was to come to negotiations with concrete numbers, methodologies, and solutions and prepare to advocate for them unabashedly.

“You think of a great negotiator as someone who is going to scream and beat people up and that’s not true at all,” said Joseph Metz, partner in the Harrisburg office of Dilworth Paxson.

Round Three

The third round of the marathon, the mediation, came with a new fact pattern as well. This scenario involved the creator of the spinach pizzas and the CFO of the health foods grocery store after the creator had been fired from the store. Unlike the scenarios in the two negotiations, there’s no solution in the fact pattern for this round, and the parties are left with a $30,000 unsolvable gap that neither side can know about.

Participants teamed up in this round and one participant served as the client while the other participant served as the attorney. Two evaluators were assigned to each room – one who served as the mediator and one who served as the evaluator.

“What would your response have been?” asked first-year student Matt McDonald, after time had been called in the third round of the marathon. McDonald was serving as the CFO from the health foods grocery store. As CFO, McDonald was facing a $60,000 settlement or a potential lawsuit.

“The mediation itself was far different than what I expected,” said McDonald. “I didn’t realize that the mediator can dictate the course of the conversation as much as he can. It can change your argument. It can change your approach.”

“We’ve included negotiation simulations in previous negotiation marathons,” said Professor Welsh. “[But] this is the first time we’ve incorporated a mediation session. Mediation is an integral part of litigation and can be very useful. I want to be sure that our students are introduced to it.”

“Ultimately, I hope the students who have participated in the Negotiation Marathon will receive useful, customized feedback from experienced, well-respected lawyers and have the opportunity to observe these lawyers in action. This experience should help to prepare them for practice, and that’s the ultimate goal,” said Welsh. 

 

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