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The Fruits of Teaching Lawyers How to Negotiate

I have been teaching negotiation for nine years now, and the gratification never ends.

For the past several years, I’ve made a final assignment called the “Blue Paperclip Exercise,” brought to my attention by Hal Abramson, in which a student is given a paperclip and assigned to increase initial value over the course of five trades. Almost every year there are delightful journals, but this year included a submission that was very special indeed.

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New York Law School attracts a diverse student body for a variety of reasons. Often, students who are already professionals in a nonlegal field choose NYLS so they can earn legal training while continuing their own practice. Seldom have the fruits of a diverse student body been as apparent as the submission of Joseph Piacentile, which I reproduce below, unedited and with his permission.

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  1. My Adventure

       I was so happy to hear that the final negotiation exercise was this one. As soon as I heard about it I knew how I wanted to handle it. I knew that the paper clip itself represented so much more than a paper clip. It represented the essence of what the course is about, the ability to negotiate. It is the essential skill that lawyers rely upon in every aspect of their practices. Trading, bartering, convincing, maneuvering, positioning, cajoling, hard balling, soft balling, understating, overstating, building expectations, limiting expectations, creating value, diminishing value, making the pie larger, making the pie disappear entirely, all part of negotiating. All those things and many more all represented by the simple blue paper clip. Not an ordinary clip, but a special clip, a blue clip. That was my story. That was going to be my beginning and my end.

Trade One: 11-29-19

The bank lady. I never knew her name other than “Mary” and she had a thing for music boxes, the little wind-up type that have the pop-up dancers. She knew me from being a customer at the bank, nothing more. I approached Mary with a simple proposal. “Mary”, I said, my name is Joe Piacentile and I’ve been a customer here for 20 years. I have a small favor to ask you. I have something I’d like to trade with you. It’s a Blue Paper Clip. A simple blue paper clip. I’d like to trade it for one or your give-away plastic banks, lined up here on your counter.” Mary replied, “Oh, You can have the bank only if you open an account, they’re promotional.” I said, “I know, but I have a condition that I’m going to impose on this trade. I want you to hold the paper clip in a special place for one week. At that time, I’ll come back and trade you something back for it, something worth much more than that clip to you.” Mary asked “why?”. I simply said that the clip was special to me and it was a sort of experiment that I was running, to see if I could trade back for that special clip. She checked with her manager who said it was fine. He knew me but had no idea what I was up to. We made the trade and she put the clip in an envelope in her drawer. I took the plastic giveaway bank.

Analysis:

I used my reputation of being a loyal customer to set the stage for trust, then played on the teller’s sense of curiosity to participate in my “experiment”. I think she was happy to be involved in an adventure. In a negotiation, I find it motivating for both sides to be engaged somehow, emotionally vested and intellectually intrigued.

Trade Two. 11-30-19

The next day I took my beautiful little giveaway bank to our friend’s house. She has a four-year-old son. I asked her if I could trade her son the shiny plastic bank, which he loved, for an odd little Toy Story toy that he received for his birthday but didn’t like. It looked like an odd little pencil person, it was a character toy called “Forky”. For some reason the toy scared him and I took advantage of that. His mom loved the idea of the bank because she felt it would encourage him to save his pennies and loose change. We made the trade.

Analysis:

I knew that the mom would respond to the concept of saving for her son’s future providing him his first bank played into that concept. She was trading away an “ugly’ toy and gaining a financial future for her son. I created an opportunity for both of us out of mere concepts.

Trade Three. 12-03-19

A few days later I took the “Forky” to a local Exxon super gas station, the kind that sells toys and lighters and all kinds of knick-knacks and the like.  I explained that I had traded someone for the toy but I had changed my mind and was looking for a different gift, something of equal or greater value. I explained that I was only looking to trade.

They offered me a cigarette lighter which I turned down, because I preferred some sort of toy or a bouquet of flowers, which they also sold there. I explained how sought-after this toy was and I walked out with a beautiful group of roses.

Analysis:

I knew I had a better chance of getting a trade done with a small business owner like the guys at the gas station. He was middle eastern and comes from a horse-trading culture and I think he enjoyed the opportunity. The toy was unusual and he probably kept it to give to it to of his own children. One child’s ugly toy is another’s cherished Disney item.

Trade Four. 12-03-19

Again, I went to a small strip mall, sole-proprietor. This time it was a toy store. Armed  with my fresh bouquet of roses I approached the woman who runs the shop. I explained that I was willing to trade the roses for a small plastic music box, that she had in the showcase, the kind with a little ballerina dancing in front of a mirror with a built-in wind up music box. I explained that I knew a woman who had no children but really enjoyed music boxes and had a collection of them. I explained that she worked at the local bank and I wanted to bring her a small gift for doing me a favor. The store owner was very happy to trade the ballerina music box for the beautiful roses. She even gift wrapped it for me.   She seemed happy to get the flowers. I got the sense that no one brings her flowers on a regular basis. It was a special treat for her.

Analysis:

Again, I approached a small business owner because I believe they have the authority and the imagination and the spirit to make trades. Many of them come from cultures where the currency is not so stable and trading is an acceptable form of commerce.

Trade Five. 12-04-19

I returned to the bank a day later with the music box. It was a perfect gift, wrapped in a bright flowered paper which almost telegraphed what was inside. I brought with me a small display case that I had on my memento shelf at home. It’s a shelf where I keep things that I have collected over a lifetime that hold a special meaning for me. Small things, simple things, things that hold no special value to the uninformed observer but are precious in my eyes. For example, I have a name tag that I purchased for a special man, a physician’s assistant whom I hired in 1990 to work for me. He needed a good job because he wanted to get married. He was from inner-city North Philadelphia. I hired him and ordered his new name badge. He was going to start the next week. He never showed up. Instead his fiancé called me, who I had not met, to thank me for hiring him, and how proud he was to get the job. He went out that weekend to buy new clothes so he would look good his first day. While walking home he was robbed at gunpoint and murdered, shot in the chest, by someone who stole his bag of clothes. The day she called me his nametag arrived. I cried like a child. Another item on my shelf is my service bars from when I was a second lieutenant in the uniformed service of the Public Health Service, also, the bus driver’s hat my uncle was wearing when he died driving the number 2 bus down Morris Avenue in the Bronx, or the Lou Costello’s fedora given to me by a great icon of television, Joe Franklin, or my Tony Award nomination for best revival of a play, Harold Pinter’s the Homecoming, or toy luger the Secret Service tried to confiscate from my bedroom when they kicked our door in looking for my father’s counterfeit coins. They returned the toy gun, they kept my father. On and on it goes, memento after memento.

I walked in with the gift-wrapped music box and walked up to Mary. I asked her if she still had my “Special Blue Paperclip”. She smiled, opened her drawer, pulled out the envelope and took out the clip. I asked her if she would take the gift in exchange for returning the paper clip. She smiled a big “Of course” and we exchanged our prizes. She opened the music box, wound up the spring and we both watched the little ballerina dance. I took the paperclip and placed it inside my memento frame, a clear frame in which the beautiful little clip seems to magically float. She asked me why the clip was so important. I told her the following. “I made a decision to go back to law school in my 60’s and I was in my last year, almost done. I had taken many courses, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Property, Civil Procedure and many others just like those. But none of those courses were as important to me as this one course, called ‘Negotiations’”. I told her that all the successes in my life and in my relationships, have come to me because I was a good negotiator. Because I paid attention to what people want and what’s important to them and what they perceive they need and what they are willing to give to get it. Because of that I would be graduating soon and I wanted something special for my memento shelf. Something little that embodied everything I wanted to remember about law school and what I take away with me in whatever future I have left. That special item was this little Blue Paper Clip. It was important to me and I wanted to have it and I would have traded away much more than I did to get it and now that I had it I had completed my task. I thanked her and told her to enjoy her music box and think of me and my paper clip whenever she winds it up. I went home and put the clip, now in its fine, clear frame in a place of honor on my memento shelf.

Final Analysis:

I knew from the beginning that I wanted that paper clip. It was my prize. It was the one thing that I could take away from my law school experience that would never mean anything to some stranger, but would secretly mean the world to me. I have owned many nice things in my life but it’s the little things, the mementos, the meaningful little oddball items with a tremendous story attached that I cherish the most. I have an office filled with a lifetime of memories, some obvious, like patents, awards, diplomas and degrees and press releases, but it’s the little items, the curious little things that mean the most. Negotiation is not a subject in law school. Negotiation is life. We all negotiate every day. Some of us are keenly aware of it, most of us are not, but we all do it every day and will continue until the day we pass. I will always remember my days at NYLS but I will have a special blue paperclip to prove that I learned something.

  1. Summary of Outcome

The results were as follows:                             

Trade 1. Special Blue Paper Clip                       Plastic Give-Away Bank

Trade 2. Plastic Give-Away Bank                       Toy Story 4 “Forky”

Trade 3.  Toy Story 4 “Forky”                             Group of Red Roses

Trade 4.  Group of Red Roses                            Ballerina Wind-Up Music Box

Trade 5.  Ballerina Wind-Up Music Box             Special Blue Paper Clip

1 Comment
  1. What a great story! I focused my attention on ADR in law school, because I knew from day one of law school that I would use the skills learned to enhance my career as an human resources executive and future employment attorney. As an human resources leader, I understood my role as a mediator and negotiator and I also had aspirations to become an arbitrator. During my law school studies, I met Professor Phillips, who taught me a great deal about ADR. I gained valued skills that I could use immediately. The day will come when “alternative” will be removed from ADR, as most disputes are not necessarily resolved through litigation and most often are deepened and hardened by litigation. Thank you for sharing Joseph Piacentile’s Blue Paperclip Exercise experience. I enjoyed the insight into his journey.

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