For 35 years, Washington, D.C. attorney Robert B. Barnett has been one of the nation’s most sought-after lawyers, representing major corporations including McDonald’s, General Electric, and Comcast. He is also the world’s premier representative of TV news correspondents, producers, and authors, with a star-studded client roster that includes Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Alan Greenspan, and Tony Blair. And for decades, he’s helped Democrats prepare for critical debates, including playing the role of George H. W. Bush in practice runs with Bill Clinton, and helping Hillary Rodham Clinton get ready for all 23 debates in 2008. Barnett just negotiated President George W. Bush’s deal with Crown Publishing for a book tentatively entitled, “Decision Points.”
Barnett, a partner at Williams & Connolly, is also a mentor and friend to HLS Assistant Clinical Professor Robert Bordone ‘97, the Thaddeus R. Beal Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. And earlier this month, Barnett appeared as a guest lecturer in Bordone’s Negotiation Workshop. The audience included two special guests, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, and his wife, author and commentator Suzy Welch. The pair are co-authors of the international bestseller, “Winning.”
Whether litigating a case for a corporate client or sealing a book deal for a celebrity author, Barnett is a master at the skill of negotiation, having learned from the best: his law partner, the legendary Edward Bennett Williams. “He had the most amazing ability to convince and persuade,” said Barnett.
The biggest challenge of his storied career, Barnett said, was helping broker the agreement between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the end of the 2008 campaign. “I suppose there was nothing more challenging than putting the Clinton and Obama campaigns together because there was a lot at stake, a lot of strong feelings, a lot of history,” Barnett said. “That was challenging. It worked out fine. You saw the convention—he and she did great, and she did everything the Obama campaign wanted, and she’s now Secretary of State.” Answering a student’s question, Barnett clarified, “Secretary of State was not part of the negotiation.” Once the two sides agreed, they pulled together, Barnett said, in “a defeat-the-enemy kind of thing.”
Another student noted that Barnett had a “nice guy” disposition, and wondered how he handled difficult or duplicitous opponents. “I’ll be first one to destroy someone if they play with me,” responded Barnett. “I don’t say it because I’m proud of it, but if someone lies to me, plays me, I never forget.”
Barnett told the students that in any situation, the first negotiation is always with your own client, in managing what they want and what’s reasonable for them to expect. “Clients can drive you crazy because they often come in with unrealistic, unbelievably crazy expectations,” he said. “A big part of being a lawyer is managing your own client, educating your own client … you try to bring your client to reality.” He added, “In the end, the goal of most negotiations is not to get yourself and your client totally pleased but pleased enough. If you can leave the field of play with no enemies for the client and for yourself, that’s a victory.”
Welch told the students, “Bob is the only person I know, as a litigator of all kinds of cases, who … never has an enemy,” adding, “No one on either side of a negotiation has anything but respect for Bob. They’re excited to have a negotiation with him because they know it’ll be above board and he’ll treat them with respect.”
Barnett offered the students some other pragmatic advice on the art of negotiation, including:
• Know more about your case than anyone. “Know more even than your own client knows,” said Barnett, noting that Williams, before trial, would “hibernate” for two or three months, “learning every case, fact, every counter-argument. He’d go into court knowing more than anyone: judge, client, the adversary.”
• Put yourself in the other side’s shoes. “Try to understand where they’re coming from, what their arguments are,” said Barnett. “Try to realize they have bosses, self-esteem, careers. Try to treat your adversary fairly, and pride yourself on always treating them the same way you hope they’d treat you. That goes a long way toward getting a good result.”
• Assess your leverage. “Everybody is expendable although everyone seems to think they are indispensable,” said Barnett. “I try to figure out how important what I’m selling is to the buyer, or what I’m buying is to the seller.”
• Present your best story first. Put forth the facts of your side or the situation as you see it before the other side does the same. “I want to be able to influence the first offer, not to just receive it,” said Barnett.
• Negotiations are best done in person. “I think the first meeting has to be in person,” he said. “You want to watch their reaction, see the nuance of how they’re reacting,” he said.
• And a corollary: Avoid negotiating by email. It’s impersonal, subject to misinterpretation, and creates a record you may not want, Barnett said. “The more you can do in person or orally on the phone, the better. Email, in most ways, has made our lives much worse. It’s certainly made the practice of law much worse.”
• Four invaluable phrases: “‘Please correct me if I’m wrong’ means you’re asserting your position but you’re appearing humble and you’re leaving the other side open to correct you in a way that might inform you or get you something you want,” said Barnett. “I also like to say, ‘I appreciate your offer, but…’ It shows gratitude and respect but is not obsequious.” Another useful phrase: “Say, ‘Let me see if I understand,’ then repeat what they said.” And his fourth: “Don’t take a position but say, ‘One solution might be …’ You haven’t offered anything, aren’t stuck with it, and it hasn’t been approved by your client yet. But it furthers the dialogue.”
• “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Let me get back to you,’ or ‘I have to consult with my client,’” said Barnett. “A continuance is as good as an acquittal, it just doesn’t last as long, Edward Bennett Williams used to say.”
• Always be the drafter of the agreement. “Williams used to say, ‘He who drafts, wins,’” Barnett said. Even though any contract is likely to go back and forth between the parties, working off of your first draft is a strategic advantage.
• At the end, give the other side credit. “I know my adversaries’ bosses. It makes me happy to say, ‘Your counsel did a great job on this.’”
• Give your client credit, too. “If the client got a great deal, it’s because the client is smart or a good writer or a good athlete,” Barnett said. “Never forget that you’re a fiduciary, a functionary.”
• Never lie. “It isn’t worth it, it isn’t ethical, it’s grounds for disbarment,” Barnett warned. “In the end, you’ll always get caught.”
• Cut the Valley-speak. “’You know’ and ‘like’ are the two worse phrases you can use. They make you sound like a teenage girl. They make you sound less smart than the Harvard geniuses you are.”