The setting: The cultural festival eisteddfod in Wales.
The protagonists: McGeorge School of Law students Leah Parrish and Doug Leach.
The plot: A lot of organizations involved in the festival are butting heads. The Welsh environmental protection agency doesn’t want the festival organizers to build on historic landmarks. Performer Catherine Zeta-Jones (who is Welsh) is demanding more pay than singer Tom Jones (also Welsh). The festival organizer is an enigmatic billionaire with a penchant for saying bizarre things to the press.
It’s up to Parrish and Leash to sort it all out.
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Full disclosure: The setup is fictional. But Parrish and Leach are very real (as, of course, is McGeorge law school. And Wales). And over the course of a week at the University of Cardiff, Parrish and Leach clinched first place in the International Negotiation Competition, where law students compete in teams of two to negotiate deals for imagined ‘”clients.”
In the made-up scenarios, each team is assigned a side and both teams are given a list of facts about the case. Then, the individual teams have a confidential list of demands that their client won’t budge on – Catherine Zeta-Jones wants more money than Tom Jones. The goal becomes to negotiate with the other team to fulfill as many of the client’s demands as possible. The team is judged on how well they fulfilled their client’s demands, on how well they worked together, on how courteous and professional they were toward the other team, and on a self-analysis after the negotiating is over.
According to Claudia Wrazel, the coach for the McGeorge negotiators, Leach and Parrish make a natural team. Leach is older, and has more of a quantitative, business-oriented perspective. Parrish is young and receptive, adept at relating and communicating with the opposition. Together, Wrazel said. the duo seamlessly dip and weave their way through tough negotiating situations.
Wrazel said one of Parrish and Leach’s strengths is their self-analysis. “They listen, pay attention, see things they could have done differently. You can see them learn as they go.”
That skill has been a large contributor to their quick ascent to international championship. Parrish and Leach started negotiating as a team last year, after a professor recommended they try out for the team. Last year, they didn’t even make it to finals at the regional competition. They came back, looked at the feedback they received, and re-evaluated their strategy.
“We were looking at the competition wrong,” Parish said. “So much of this is knowing how to talk to people, coming across as warm and sincere, making it sound like a natural conversation.”
So this year, to prepare for competition, they worked on toning down the aggression and playing up their charm. Every week, they spent hours sitting across from Wrazel, running through mock negotiation scenarios. Every so often, Wrazel will stop and correct them on the most minute things: Parrish sometimes slouches when she sits. Leach has a bad habit of starting his sentences with “so.”
The practice paid off. This year, they got second at regionals at the University of Oregon. Then, they flew to Chicago for nationals, where they narrowly defeated the same University of Oregon team to claim the national title. Then, it was on to the international competition.
According to Parrish, going to Wales was exciting, but also nerve-wracking.
“You’re always really nervous before you start talking,” sad Parrish. “And the second you start talking you forget the judges are there.”
The night of the awards ceremony, Parrish and Leach had no idea where they stood in the rankings. But as the top 10 teams began to be announced, and McGeorge’s name hadn’t yet been called, Parrish and Leach began to suspect they might have claimed the top spot.
“By the time they got to the top three, I knew we won,” Parrish said. “It was so nice to have it pay off.”
The world of competitive negotiating may seem obscure – most people will never have to think about how to negotiate salary terms for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance at a Welsh festival – the negotiating skills Parrish and Leach have perfected over the past two years are broadly applicable.
“These skills are not just for law stuff,” Parrish said. “Every day you negotiate with somebody.” Convincing a bank to extend you a loan, bargaining with your 2-year-old to stop crying at the dinner table. At its core, being a good negotiator just means being able to hear what other people want, and listening closely enough to understand where they’re coming from.
Recently, at the law firm where Parrish works during the day, a client was refusing to accept a settlement payment. At first, it seemed he was just being unreasonable. But, with the skills she’s honed in McGeorge, Parrish listened closely. Understood deeply. And realized that the settlement wasn’t what was really important to the client.
“As silly as it sounds, our client wanted an apology letter from this person,” Parrish said. “He didn’t care about the money; he felt wronged.”
Once the firm realized this, it asked the other party to send the client an apology letter. After their client received the letter, he readily agreed to the settlement.
It was a negotiation that had nothing to do with Welsh cultural festivities, or Catherine Zeta-Jones. But the principals behind both scenarios, one real and one imagined, were very much the same.
“It’s rarely the (actual) thing that’s the problem,” Parrish said, to conclude the story. “It’s always something else.”