Negotiating Your Way Through Law School

Winning Entry of the Master Negotiator Writing Competition
by Sayanti Chatterjee, April 2018

Being a student in a law school is an enlightening experience in many ways. Completing six assignments per semester in addition to viva-voces, moots and six academic credits, further maintaining a seventy per-cent class attendance reduces every goody two-shoes into begging the professors for project extensions and extra attendance. Following in the footsteps of my seniors, I quickly realized this inevitable axiom of law school life and what a big part the art of negotiation was going to play in such a scenario.

The first time I needed attendance, my all knowing batch mates advised me to go beg the course teacher. It would be quick and easy, they said, having done it multiple times before. You’d just have to swallow your pride and keep at it.

“Please sir, if you can give me the attendance for two days only…?”

“Two days! You’re such a good student; I didn’t expect this from you.”

Turns out, being a good student has its disadvantages, coupled with the fear of losing that reputation in a stroke of bad decisions. In addition to not getting attendance, I also had to deal with constant glares from the professor in question for almost a week!

A couple of days ago when I was doing the Introductory Course on Negotiation, the airport check-in example made me realise that instead of seeing the situation as a negotiating opportunity, I had simply put forth my demands and begged the professor to accept them without giving any reasons for the same or looking at it from his point of view.

Even after swearing in the name of all the gods I believed in that I wouldn’t repeat such an experience, the opportunity presented itself soon enough. This time I was much more careful and my initial hesitation was overcome only after I saw a fellow comrade (yes, we law students must stick together) get the job done. I observed him very minutely, at the risk of looking like a creepy stalker, and discovered that instead of going forth and stiffly asking for what he wanted, he went and opened his conversation with the weather! Only after he had spent a good amount of time talking about the rain, our multiple assignments and something about his previous win in a moot court competition, did he gently introduce the topic of a project extension for two days, and that too with a carefully crafted sheepish smile (anyone who has ever seen lawyers would agree that ‘sheepish’ and ‘lawyer’ don’t go together). That guy was a genius in my eyes, adding new elements to the initial begging dynamic: non-verbal communication and small talk.

Imagine my surprise when after a half hour of hankering about the weather and other varieties of useless small talk, all I get is:

“I’m sorry; I can’t grant you an extension.”

“But please ma’am, just this once…”

“I’m sorry dear, but you try your best.  I’m sure you’ll finish something within time.”

Instead of getting an extension, all I had were half-hearted encouragements from the professor and countless jibes from my friends. My dreams of becoming a suave advocate, whose convincing power is worth her weight in gold, were quickly turning into mush. So I took a step back and started analysing what went wrong.

One of the first questions that came to my mind was whether this was an appropriate situation for negotiation. Every example of negotiation is related to the business world, and maybe when you wanted something and were willing to get into a bargain. But how does one even bargain with a professor? I had to know what the professor wanted and why; in negotiation terms, the position and the interests had to be made clear. What did I have to offer as an alternative?  What benefit would she walk away with after granting me what I wanted?

Then there was the importance of choosing the right words with which to approach the problem. In my hurry, I had forgotten to walk my way through the conversation and had made a rookie mistake by jumping straight to the point, even after all the small talk. A careful analysis of my friend’s tactics made me realise that he may have started with the weather, but he moved on to discuss the pressure of completing multiple assignments along with an ongoing research paper upon which he wanted the professor’s views, which drew the professor’s sympathy on his side. By further touching on his moot court win and the excellent quality and on-time submission of his previous assignments, he was making a subtle bargain: ‘give me some more time and I’ll hand over a top notch assignment which will save you the pain of meticulously looking for mistakes, and I probably won’t repeat this’. And that’s the gain the professor saw.

Apart from the power of small talk, there was the timing of introducing his demand, along with the use of non-verbal clues. By easing in the subject right after he set the ground with his general conversation, the professor was more inclined to help since she already understood his interests and truly believed that he’d taken her interests into consideration too. Building some credibility before making a demand is advisable, but seeing every demand as an opportunity for negotiating and ultimately giving value to both sides instead of a one-sided give and take, is what seals the deal.  A big smile always helps, along with a light and easy posture. Showing any type of nervousness always gives the other side too much power to influence the outcome, which I believe is one of my problems, since I’m too nervous to clearly consider my options and just end up accepting their denials at face value. But keeping it light keeps both sides alert to the other’s suggestions and facilitates discussion.

Most importantly, there was goal setting. I went in to just ‘see what I can do’ and ‘try my best’, basically with a half-hearted motivation and no clear outcome in mind. I knew I wanted an extension and why I wanted it, but I didn’t know how much nor why the other party would want it too. I knew how to convince, just not what to convince them to do. My friend on the other hand was pretty clear. He needed a two day extension, no more no less. He was willing to compromise, but also pointed out that he wouldn’t be able to complete it properly if he wasn’t given a minimum of two days. The professor saw his logic and saw it best to allow it for the sake of an academic accomplishment. Further, his attitude clearly indicated that he was fully prepared to calmly sit there in her office until he got what he wanted.

Last January, we had a Mediation Boot Camp conducted by Mr. Tom Valenti, who gave an example which stuck with me. He explained that when there’s a deadlock between parties, ask one party to cut the cake equally and the other to choose his piece. That’s what mothers with errant siblings do, and that’s what works most times with warring parties too. But that’s mediation; in negotiation you also have to convince the other side that both of us got the cherry.

So I tried out what I’d learnt a third time in hopes of finding some respite from my relentless schedule. I went in one fine Saturday morning, smartly dressed and with as much confidence and ease as I could muster, to one of my law professors. I started off with doubts about my previous assignments, spent quite some time on it to truly convince him that I cared about grades (I truly do, but then I also have to convince my friends that I don’t), and moved on to doubts about the upcoming assignment. We discussed this in quite some detail before I introduced, in an offhanded manner as if I couldn’t care less, my main purpose.

“That’s true sir, I’m excited to do more research on this topic. I might even take it up separately as next month’s project.”

“You can do that Ms. Chatterjee; it’ll help for your exams too.”

“But I may not be able to incorporate it into this assignment. The submission is this Thursday.”

“Oh…It would’ve been great if you could.”

“I’ll try to; however I might need a day or two more to round it off nicely and make it fit in. It’ll add to the overall value of the assignment, and I might even be able to send it to some journal, if you’d permit it.”

“Of course, that’s not an issue. So, do you think you’d be able to do it by Friday then?”

“It’ll be helpful sir, if I can have the weekend too. The assignment will be ready Monday morning sharp at 10 on your desk.”

“Okay then, I’ll extend it till Monday. I expect a good assignment.”

“You won’t be disappointed sir. Thank you very much.”

Now I won’t go so far as to claim that this is how a Master Negotiator does it, but I am mighty proud of myself. It’s a sign of improvement that I can point out the mistakes that I made that day and am currently in the process of continuous self-improvement. The adults in our life may claim that the real world starts outside university, however I feel this is where we must prepare for it and make as many mistakes and learn as much as we can in this controlled environment before we are thrown out in the open sea at the mercy of God.

In the traditional sense, lawyers were seen as problem-creators, the reason why the vast majority of the Indian population still avoid court battles. But in this quagmire, it is a refreshing opportunity to become one of the problem-solvers, and what better place to practice that skill than in university. Whether it is a business merger the size of the Vodafone-Idea Merger[1] or a simple question of keeping the light switched on between roommates, negotiation helps every step of the way.

I won’t conclude with a generalised statement about how negotiation has helped lawyers, I can’t claim to know that. Personally speaking, it has given me the power to move beyond emotive speaking skills, rote memorisation of laws, courtroom drama and legal battles, into the territory of really touching lives and solving problems. Instead of simply arguing a case in a one-sided manner and blatantly attacking the other side, I now consider both sides and weigh the pros and cons of every statement I make, taking into account the feelings and interests of all parties concerned. In many areas, that has made me a better person overall, now that I understand the demands of my contending parties, which makes my arguments in moots better rounded and acceptable to the judge. But best of all is the feeling of accomplishment I get after every successful negotiation, ensuring the satisfaction of the parties, just like I had felt on the bright Monday morning when I handed in a well made assignment, making sure my professor didn’t regret the extension. For me, that’s what the art of negotiation is all about.

[1] Economic Times Bureau, NCLT approves Idea-Vodafone merger, THE ECONOMIC TIMES (Jan. 13, 2018, 07:17 AM IST),


A student of B.A.LL.B. (Hons.) at Hidayatullah National Law University, Sayanti loves law with a passion. Apart from academics, she is an ardent traveller, reader, movie buff and food fanatic who dreams of touring Europe one day and trying out all the various cuisines. An entrepreneur at heart, she also runs two blogs and hopes to run her own practice someday.