June 10, 2011
Contracts Roundtable: Negotiations
Posted by Erik Gerding

One thing I have tried in many of my classes including Contracts is to add a small negotiation simulation component. It has been more of an experiment than a fully integrated part of the Contracts course.

My goals have been fairly modest. Among them: to expose students to a regular aspect of legal practice. (I remember in my 1L desperately looking for some other niche other than appellate advocacy.) I also want to get students to understand in a very hands-on way how contracts get made and to look at them as more than just exhibits in a lawsuit. I want to provide a corrective to my own tendency to focus too much of the classroom discussion on what lawyers in given case did wrong. As I have mentioned in posts several months ago, conducting an autopsy of cases may lead students to be too conservative in practice. Contract drafting exercises give students an appreciation for how difficult the lawyer’s craft can be.

Contract negotiation exercises add an extra dimension that may be under-emphasized in the business law curriculum generally. I have seen a lot of great exercises and simulations in various courses that involve planning and drafting for a client. There are a lot fewer that require students to engage in the even more difficult process of planning and drafting while sitting across the table from a counterparty. When do you compromise? When do you specify standards or remedies in a contract?  When do you fall back on default rules or more general language?  It sounds platitudinous, but the essence of contract is that it takes two to contract (unless you are drafting a unilateral contract for smoke balls). The negotiation dimension makes the discussion of any class involving private ordering a lot richer and more complex.  (And I agree with Usha, the Contracts may play a special role in bringing private ordering into the first year.) 

And to be honest, I add a negotiation exercise not only to give students a sense of the difficulties of contract negotiation, but also its pure fun.

In other courses, I have found good negotiation exercises and simulations in case books (some suggestions in a subsequent post) or developed them myself. In Contracts, I have generally bought some of the simpler contract negotiation exercises that are available in the large offerings of the Harvard Program on Negotiation clearinghouse.

There have been some hitches. First, the Harvard materials are largely designed for teaching negotiation skills, not necessarily for use in a doctrinal class. Many of the exercises might be made better by reworking them to add more doctrinally relevant facts. It would also be wonderful if a clearinghouse had exercises designed for use in doctrinal classes.

Second, again, the limits of class time force us all to make hard choices about our teaching objectives. My aim in Contracts and in other courses is to give a taste of negotiation, but not to replicate a Negotiations course on the cheap. It is important to focus on what I want students to get out of the exercise.  This means carefully planning (but not scripting) the class in which we do the post-negotiation debriefing.

Third, it has been hard to figure out when to hold the simulation and how to integrate it into the semester. It seems a little odd to have a negotiation when we are still discussing contract formation and formation defenses. Some students tend to get tripped up trying hard not to make or accept an offer inadvertently rather than focus on the simulation. In an ideal plan for the course, I would have a negotiation exercise before we talk about parol evidence and contract interpretation to allow the negotiation pairs to take a fresh look at what they wrote before to spot potential ambiguities that might create litigation exposure.

Despite these hitches and occasional glitches, adding a negotiation dimension to Contracts (and other business law courses) has seemed rewarding for the student. Can I admit that I have fun too?

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