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At Practice 360°, Solo & Small Firm Lawyers Explore New Tools of the Trade, Strategies

October 10, 2023

By William Roberts

When it comes to negotiation, most people think of compromise. But negotiation is a much more complex and sophisticated process, especially in the context of practicing law.

“Everything revolves around interests,” said Max Bevilacqua, founder and chief negotiating officer of the advisory firm Mindful Negotiating in Boston. “The metaphor we use is an iceberg. Positions are visible — things they will ask for. Interests are much more important, a substantive mass of things: our fears, values, motivations, drivers, needs, and concerns.”

Max Bevilacqua“Instead of focusing on what people ask for, you want to understand their motivations. [You] want to get that understanding,” added Bevilacqua, one of the featured speakers at the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service’s ninth annual Practice 360°: A Day for Lawyers and Law Firms on October 4. The event, attended by more than 130 people, explored topics ranging from negotiation strategies to marketing to using artificial intelligence responsibly.

Bevilacqua’s negotiation model is based on the 1981 classic book by Harvard Law professor Roger Fisher and mediation expert William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Born out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, the book pioneered methods of principled negotiation by separating people from the problem; focusing on interests, not positions; inventing options for mutual gain; and using objective criteria.

Lawyers can assess their own negotiating style, whether it’s too competitive, controlling, or accommodating, and relearn new approaches to create ideal negotiation dynamics, Bevilacqua said. It requires self-reflection, or individual coaching, and sometimes may mean sending someone else to the negotiation table.

“The idea is that the things that make lawyers strong in front of judges, or the critical mindset, sometimes come at the expense of doing other things — switching modes, getting out of competitive mode, maybe moving to the collaborative,” said Bevilacqua, a former instructor with Harvard’s Program on Negotiation who now lectures at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Strategic Vision & Marketing

In addition to tips on honing their negotiation skills, Practice 360° attendees also received advice from experts on media strategies for getting their name, and that of their firm, out there.

“Lawyers are great at generating ideas, but there was some subject matter knowledge missing,” said Carlos Lastra, a partner at Cipriani & Werner, P.C. “We’re not marketers. We’re not taught to be marketers in law school.”

Practice 360 Media Marketing PanelLastra and fellow partner Tracey Coates, cochairs of their firm’s family law practice, said they leveraged their knowledge of domestic relations matters to gain media and television interviews. Their firm also brought in Eleanor Kerlow of Eleanor Kerlow PR as an outside public relations consultant to help them develop media pitches that led to television appearances, elevating their practice and building their personal brand.

Working with news outlets matters in today’s digital media ecosystem, Kerlow said, because placements generate content and shares. The key is to be knowledgeable, prepared, and accessible when the media needs help with a story, she told attendees.

Marketing is important to Cipriani & Werner, a general services firm that had been based primarily in Pennsylvania but opened an office in Washington, D.C., in 2014 and has expanded into Maryland and Virginia. The firm now has 20 offices in 10 states and the District.

“You have to do a good job, but once you do a good job, they trust you. They like you. They know that you know what you're talking about. Eventually you get invitations back because they know that you'll deliver every time,” Lastra said of his media engagements.

Coates created her own podcast, The Tracey Coates Show, which gave her a platform to reach people directly and build her own audience by tackling relationship, marriage, and divorce issues. She discovered that the podcast was a relatively low-cost way to establish her brand and build credibility both with media and potential clients.

Of course, skills and tactics need strategy, and David Skinner of Gimbal offered attendees a workshop in developing a purpose-driven strategic vision for their law firms.

“Establishing a vision for what you want to achieve, even in the shorter term, will help set the foundation that creates alignment and unifies your team around a common sense of purpose,” Skinner said. “That common sense of purpose is going to improve focus and productivity, and that is what's going to help you deliver better services to your clients while also improving your bottom line.”

Setting a vision for your firm’s strategy requires being clear about who you serve, how you serve them, and why it matters to them and to you, Skinner said. The key is to create a statement of what you want your firm to achieve and look like in three to five years’ time, he added.

Keeping Up With AI

The legal world has been abuzz with both excitement and concern about how artificial intelligence will impact the practice of law, and Practice 360° covered some of the issues around AI technology such as ChatGPT.

Ed WaltersThe major question for the legal profession is, if lawyers are going to use AI tools, “how do we not fall prey to ethical pitfalls?” asked Ed Walters, CEO and founder of Fastcase, an online legal research service. Fastcase, a D.C. Bar member benefit, recently merged with vLex, a global legal intelligence platform that uses AI.

The D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct require lawyers to be technologically competent, so when it comes to AI, “you have to be proficient with these tools,” Walters said, but at the same time, practitioners must uphold their duty of confidentiality.

“Competence requires that we analyze these tools to see if we can use them to serve our clients safely, confidentially,” Walters said. Ethics rules require lawyers to avoid using “reckless technologies,” but they also “require us to stay abreast of the new technologies and understand what's out there,” he added.

Walters advised caution in the use of AI. “We are sort of being led to believe that AI is this magical robot lawyer — and maybe one day it will be — but as of right now it’s just not, even though it’s pretending to be. There are a million problems with AI,” Walters said.

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