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“Getting to Yes” – Roger Fisher Taught Us All

Roger Fisher, Professor of Law emeritus at Harvard Law School and Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, died in late August, 2012 at the age of 90.

Of high relevance to lawyers in all fields was Fisher’s ability to find and show people in conflict their common ground.  Fisher laid out tools for finding such ground in many ways, most usefully in his groundbreaking book, “Getting to Yes”.  I sometimes think of Fisher as the anti-Machiavelli, the man who could find the missing pieces in what had seemed like a zero sum game.

After opposing sides see common interests, they can begin to solve their conflicts.  Although negotiation between enemies does not always work, Professor Fisher showed by writing and example that when pursuing common goals even enemies can sincerely negotiate.

Among his other accomplishments, behind the scenes Professor Fisher facilitated both the 1985 Geneva summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan as well as the Camp David accord between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.  Professor Fisher advised the top United States participants (Presidents Carter and Reagan) to have the primary participants share personal stories, stories with which their opponents could identify.  The Camp David accord was literally signed hours after President Carter gave Menachem Begin signed photos for each of his grandchildren.  Once negotiators can imagine life as the other person, focus can shift to their common interests.

Obituaries that discuss Mr. Fisher’s extraordinary life include:

These high stakes tools of finding common ground can and should be used by legal rainmakers.  Getting to “yes” means finding commonality regarding your client’s legal representation.  Both you and your client need to believe you want to arrange excellent legal representation, to find the client a lawyer who is most appropriate for the interests and goals of the client.  If a client believes that the best representation for the client is the common goal, the client will listen with an open mind as your explain the particular advantages you offer as a lawyer.   Client-oriented lawyers need to state openly that they do not offer the best representation in all situations.

Having a client’s best interests as your goal creates common ground for finding the client its best legal representation.  Your focus in having a serious career means servicing clients to the best of your ability.  Your goal should not necessarily be to get hired in any particular instance; it should rather be to get hired often because your potential clients know you and they have a common goal – to accomplish the common agenda of best serving the client.

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