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The Need for Negotiation – Part 1: College and University Presidents and Independent School Heads

Marty Latz, one of my favorite negotiation gurus, recently wrote a fascinating blog about the failure of negotiations to avoid the war in Ukraine. One of Latz’s salient points was that Vladimir Putin, who only understands crude power as leverage in a negotiation, routinely tells lies in his negotiations, and so he expects the other side to lie as well.

Accordingly, talk about international sanctions and the West arming Ukraine, was dismissed by Putin as empty rhetoric before they actually happened. I recommend the entire Latz piece, with its more involved and subtle analysis.

Thankfully, as executive employment attorneys involved in negotiating employment contracts and termination packages for president and senior executives in academia, as well as finance, media and other industry sectors, we do not have to negotiate with Vladimir Putin or anyone else who is only interested in demonstrating their raw power.

Our negotiations, and those of our executive clients we help guide, are customarily courteous and thoughtful, with both sides dedicated to maximizing resources and getting a deal done which benefits both the executive and the employer.

Such negotiations in the executive employment arena are not only generally constructive, leading to better (sometimes much better) agreements, they often have meaningful subsidiary benefits which extend well beyond the specific agreement at issue.

For one, they provide a quick way for the parties to know each other far better than they would have without the mutual exchange of information which always results from even the most expeditious and focused negotiation.

This is particularly valuable in the majority of academic presidential and head of school negotiations, where often the only contact between the school and the prospective president or head of school have been interviews conducted as part of the formal search process. Such interviews, with neither the school nor the candidate as yet certain as to where the process is heading, may not have revealed some crucial information regarding the position or the institution.

Second, the negotiation process almost certainly will develop and highlight important issues which, if dealt with at the outset, become the basis for a more secure understanding as well as a firmer foundation for the parties’ ongoing relationship.

And in today’s fraught world of higher education, the more secure the parties’ relationship, the fewer time-consuming and expensive problems which the parties may encounter down the road. Nothing can be farther from the world of Vladimir Putin!

Despite these patent advantages, some college and university presidents and independent school heads are still hesitant to use an experienced executive employment lawyer to negotiate, or help them negotiate, their employment contracts. They may be fearful of looking too aggressive or incurring legal fees.

In our experience, these fears are misguided. Sophisticated academic institutions respect leaders who know enough to take care of themselves by having knowledgeable counsel, since those leaders will take better care of the institutions they are named to lead. As for the legal fees (as to which I have written more separately), the cost of legal representation to achieve a good agreement at the beginning or end of an executive’s employment term, not only pays for itself (and the school often contributes to this expense), it is a modest fraction of the legal cost of dealing with an inadequate agreement when things go wrong.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.