Many U.S. law schools are in crisis, to hear some tell it. To combat economic downturns, many law firms instituted policies of mass layoffs and pay cuts. Years after the 2008 financial recession, few have recovered. As a result, college graduates are now thinking twice about becoming lawyers, and many law schools have fewer high-quality applicants to choose from. In the past three years, the number of first-year U.S. law school students fell by 24%, according to the American Bar Association.
Law School Applicant Competition and Negotiation
That state of affairs has created fierce competition among law schools for the best applicants—and led them to offer new enticements, such as tuition freezes and reductions and increased financial aid, even as they try to trim spending, writes Elizabeth Olson in a New York Times article on the trend.
The situation has also led to a growing realization among law school applicants that they are in a prime position to negotiate the terms of their admission. “Students are voting with their feet, and demanding a better deal,” Daniel B. Rodriguez, dean of the Northwestern University School of Law, told the Times. “It’s insane. We’re in hand-to-hand combat with other schools.”
Emily Trieber, a first-year student at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island, told the Times that after the school offered her a scholarship, she successfully negotiated to lower her tuition further, as many of her classmates have. “It doesn’t hurt to ask,” she explained.
The story makes a bigger point: When the deal you’re being offered isn’t as appealing as it used to be, the time is ripe to ask for a better one. But what’s the best way to open up a negotiation when negotiation isn’t the norm?
The following three guidelines should help:
1. Focus on BATNAs.
As in any business negotiation, your primary source of power will be your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA—your ability to walk away from a deal that doesn’t meet your needs in favor of one that does. For law school applicants, that might mean applying to several schools and, if all goes well, negotiating issues such as tuition and financial aid with each one of them.
When negotiation is not the norm, it becomes particularly important to assess not only your own BATNA but also your target’s. For example, a law school applicant should easily be able to find statistics on enrollment, tuition trends, and LSAT data for the schools he’s considering. Such research would help him identify whether a school is, indeed, struggling to maintain its prestige, in which case it may be open to negotiation, or whether it is holding strong, in which case it may not.
In business negotiations, you should be able to get a clearer sense of your negotiating leverage with a particular party by researching relevant economic indicators, checking media reports, and asking around your network.
For more information, see also BATNA and Other Sources of Power at the Bargaining Table and How to Find Your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.
2. Set the stage for success.
Rather than opening with strong demands, begin by presenting your well-researched case that a better deal is warranted, whether due to changing economic conditions, increased competition, or whatever the reason may be. In addition, lay out any evidence you have that negotiation is becoming increasingly common in this realm.
You might also increase the other party’s willingness to negotiate by asking questions. For example, you could ask him to confirm whether your research is accurate: “My understanding is that the availability of cheaper parts is driving down costs in your industry; is that correct?” Because your counterpart may be unprepared to negotiate, express your willingness to discuss details after giving him time to get ready.
3. Identify what’s in it for them.
If a counterpart is eager to do business with you and conscious of changing marketplace conditions, it might not be difficult to convince her to negotiate. But what if she resists cutting you a better deal?
In this case, stress the assets you bring to the table, and don’t be afraid to refer to your BATNA. A top-notch law school candidate, for example, could remind her contact in the admissions office of her qualifications and mention the other schools she’s considering. If she has a good offer in hand, she might ask the school if it could improve on the offer or,
at the very least, match it. The message: She has options and is not afraid to exercise them.
In addition, look for carrots you might dangle to lessen your counterpart’s resistance to negotiation. Think in particular about perks that would be easy for you to give and that the other party might value, such as introductions to influential members of your network.
If the other party still refuses to negotiate, you may need to choose between taking what’s being offered and turning to your BATNA. Don’t be surprised, however,
if the counterpart calls you back to the table after the reality of losing you has hit home.
Adapted from “Negotiation Frontiers: Exploring New Opportunities to Negotiate,” first published in the February 2015 issue of Negotiation Briefings.