Leveraging Negotiation in Legal Practice: An interview with BGPartners CEO Elena Mégevand-Valli

I recently spoke to Elena Mégevand-Valli, partner and CEO at BGPartner | Attorneys-at-law, a Swiss boutique business law firm that has put Negotiation front and center in its philosophy and identity. In this week’s ‘Negotiation Nugget’ she shares how their firm has embraced Negotiation as a way of thinking, how it all got started and what she thinks it means for the future of the business. Enjoy!

C: Great to reconnect, Elena! Your firm’s pretty unique “Mastering Law and Negotiation” slogan caught my eye. Tell me more about it!

E: Most lawyers negotiate all the time, yet negotiation isn’t usually emphasized in legal education. We recognized its added value and integrated it into the DNA of our firm. Negotiation is not just a skill; it’s a mindset and a strategic approach that permeates every aspect of our practice. By highlighting negotiation alongside legal expertise, we aim to provide comprehensive and effective solutions to our clients’ needs.

C: I love this approach! Why do you think most firms don’t place as big an emphasis on negotiation?

E: I’m not entirely sure. Some might believe they’re already proficient negotiators, while others may underestimate the importance or think there’s nothing new to learn. Additionally, legal education traditionally focuses heavily on substantive legal knowledge, leaving little room for negotiation training. However, negotiation is a dynamic skill that requires continuous development and refinement. It’s about understanding human behavior, psychology, and communication, all of which are vital in achieving favorable outcomes for our clients.

C: How did the focus on negotiation start at your firm?

E: Oliver Gnehm, our chairman and I invested significant time in our own negotiation training and realized its power. We then developed a concept and made a concerted effort to roll it out firm-wide. We conducted workshops, seminars, and provided resources to ensure that every member of our team understands the importance, principles and techniques of negotiation. It wasn’t just about teaching negotiation as a skill but embedding it into our firm’s culture and ethos.

C: What does the training for lawyers look like at your firm?

E: As a small firm, we ensure everyone speaks the same language and shares our values. We offer both internal and external training, incorporating concepts from Harvard, behavioural theory and modern conflict management. Our training isn’t just about teaching negotiation tactics; it’s about fostering a deeper understanding of negotiation as a strategic tool. We delve into topics such as effective communication, building rapport, managing emotions, and creative problem-solving.

C: How does this focus on negotiation impact your daily work with clients?

E: When clients come to us, we approach their cases with a negotiator’s mindset. We delve into their underlying interests, not just their rights. We provide strategic alternatives and guide them through a process that ensures they achieve their best outcomes. For example, in a recent case involving a contract dispute, instead of solely focusing on legal arguments, we explored potential negotiation strategies to resolve the issue amicably and efficiently. By considering the broader context and the client’s objectives, we were able to reach a favourable resolution that not only protected their legal rights but also preserved the relationship with the counterparty and created additional value for both sides.

C: You’d think all firms would adopt this approach, right?

E:You’d think so! However, clients often tell us that while other firms provide legal assessments, they lack strategic guidance.

C: How do you ensure your teams keep developing their negotiation skills?

E:We work in small teams and utilize checklists. We have regular update calls with case reports discussing lessons learned in high-stakes negotiation, and our team members use each other as sparring partners to prepare for negotiation and ask each other for advice. Every few weeks, we focus on a negotiation challenge, with one member leading the discussion. Additionally, we encourage our team members to attend external training programs, participate in workshops, and engage in peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

C: Does this focus on negotiation help attract clients to your firm?

E: We usually don’t specifically ask new clients why they choose us, but we do attract clients interested in our negotiation skills. They are sometimes surprised that we put so much emphasis on this topic next to our legal excellence, but we regularly receive very positive feedback. Our clients appreciate more and more the value we create when we advise them on upcoming negotiations or negotiate on their behalf. So, it seems to be a step in the right direction.

C: Can you provide an example of how this approach benefits clients?

E:Certainly. We recently worked with a large construction company that had consulted three other firms. While the others assessed their legal rights, the client wanted concrete recommendations on what to do next. We combined legal analysis with an understanding of the company’s goals and recommended a strategic negotiation approach. Instead of getting bogged down in contract interpretation, we focused on communication and pragmatic negotiation steps, which ultimately led to a more favorable outcome for the client.

C: Thank you, Elena. It’s been great speaking with you! Keep up the pioneering work!

E: Great catching up, Claudia. You too! 🙂

PS. If you enjoyed this content, feel free to sign up for our free 10-week Email course on the fundamentals of Collaborative and Competitive Negotiation skills by clicking HERE.

Each week, you will get a bite-size email unpacking some of the most fundamental negotiation concepts that you can apply in your everyday negotiations, along with an insight video and book recommendation to go further in areas you want to learn more about.