How to avoid common pitfalls in negotiations

By John Allison
Lawyers frequently negotiate on behalf of their clients. Let’s take a look at four common pitfalls in settlement negotiations and how to avoid them: negotiating without your client’s goals clearly in mind; focusing solely on the legal issues involved in the dispute; having a personal stake in reaching agreement; and ignoring the relationships among the parties.
Have Your Client’s Goals Clearly in Mind.  Before entering into settlement negotiations it is essential to understand what your client wants to achieve and what your client wants to avoid.  Consider questions such as these:

- Is your client willing to participate in the litigation process and, if necessary, go to trial?

- What does your client want to achieve in the negotiation?

- Is there a range of acceptable outcomes for your client?

- Are matters of principle or personal values involved?

- Are there any non-negotiable issues?

Take Your Client’s Broader Interests into Account We are trained as lawyers to focus on the legal issues involved in a case. From a client’s perspective the claims, defenses and legal issues are merely tools.  

The client’s goal is to resolve the dispute on favorable terms in the context of the client’s broader interests. For example, a business client might be in the midst of sensitive union negotiations and would like to resolve a dispute quickly and avoid the publicity associated with litigation.

Focus on the Client.  A highly effective negotiator maintains a single-minded focus on achieving the client’s goals. If you have a personal stake in achieving a settlement your ability to achieve the client’s goals will be compromised.  

Remember the Relationships Lawyers often get so caught up in trying to negotiate the best possible financial settlement for their client that they overlook the client’s desire to preserve a relationship with the other party. For example, a product liability case generally involves a plaintiff who was injured by a product that did not perform as the plaintiff expected.  

Settlement negotiations can provide an opportunity for the manufacturer to restore a positive relationship with the plaintiff. If the manufacturer’s lawyer is careful to treat the plaintiff with compassion and respect, and negotiates fairly, the plaintiff will be more likely to say positive things about the manufacturer to family members and friends and may even buy more of the manufacturer’s products in the future. 

John Allison is a professional career coach backed by years of experience as a successful lawyer. He is the founder of The Coach for Lawyers and author of "The Art of Practicing Law: A Practical Guide for Lawyers."