Thursday, June 6, 2013

Note from the Big Leagues

by Chris Davis ’14


Walking down the long corridor, adorned as it was with jerseys from bygone eras, gleaming World Series trophies, and a whole lot of Louisville Sluggers, I was reminded of the rich history of baseball, which has always been as much a part of the sport’s allure as the game itself. I was in a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan, about 200 miles from Cooperstown, but if you had told me these memorabilia-decked walls were the structural support for an annex to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I would have believed you.

[l to r] Jonathan Bennett ’12, Alexis Beveridge ’13, Tarik Elhussein ’13, Chris Davis ’14, Jae In Kim ’13, and Rory Van Loo ’07.

Yet this was no museum; this was the corporate headquarters of Major League Baseball (MLB), which presides over an industry which had revenues of $7.5 billion last year. I was here, with a team of Harvard Law School (HLS) students, not to solicit autographs but to give advice. This was the sort of opportunity that would be the subject of mere fantasy before matriculating at HLS and a sort of “pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming” aura surrounded the occasion.

Baseball’s appeal may be strongly tied to the traditions of its past, but an entity as profitable as MLB cannot endure without a vigilant eye toward the future. So when Professor Robert Bordone ‘97, Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), developed a capstone consulting project with MLB for his course “Advanced Negotiation: Multiparty Negotiation, Group Decision Making, and Teams,” co-taught with Lecturer on Law Rory Van Loo ‘07, the topic was one familiar to any thriving industry in the twenty-first century: globalization.

Specifically, MLB tasked the class with providing strategic advice for an upcoming negotiation aimed at the implementation of an international amateur draft—a controversial system which will not only significantly affect every club in the league but also change the landscape for amateur players, coaches, and even some  national economies worldwide.

With so many parties involved, the impending negotiation promised to be difficult. All of the challenges of one-on-one negotiation are embedded in a multi-party negotiation, but are magnified by the increased lines of communication. There are more values, interests, and perceptions that must be accommodated. There is more information to be exchanged and purposefully sequenced. And there is a special pressure toward conformity that attends a heightened sensitivity to being observed.

The increased informational, procedural, strategic, and social complexity of a multiparty negotiation makes assiduous preparation crucial to success at the table. Thus my teammates (Alexis Beveridge ’13, Tarik Elhussein ’13, Jae In Kim ’13, and Jonathan Bennett ’12) and I focused our presentation almost entirely on strategic moves MLB could make prior to the initiation of formal negotiations.  We recommended spatially mapping the relevant parties, evaluating the potential role each party might play within a coalition, disarming potential spoilers in advance, and defining a purposeful sequence for approaching the parties. A considerable expenditure of resources at the front end, we argued, would pay dividends at the table.

We presented these findings to Robert Manfred ’83, Executive Vice President of Economics & League Affairs (one of five executives reporting directly to Commissioner Bud Selig) and his team of a dozen or so MLB employees in a thirtieth floor conference room at MLB headquarters. Following the presentation, our audience asked follow up questions regarding procedural and substantive strategy for the forthcoming international draft negotiations. Manfred offered feedback on our suggestions, noting what features from the presentation in particular resonated and which might be infeasible due to insights based on company information to which our class was not made privy.

Following the presentation, Vice President of League Economics and Strategy Chris Marinak gave our HLS contingent a tour of the facilities. This included an inspection of MLB’s vast array of memorabilia, a glimpse into the New York office of Commissioner Selig, and a chance encounter while walking the hallways with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

This opportunity was a culmination of a semester-long project full of twists and turns. Professor Bordone announced the project on the first day of class with a catch: all students would work toward completion of this capstone project, but only one team of students would be chosen out of six to travel to New York to present its findings.  The six original teams were pared to four, on merit, by a panel of professors including Noah Feldman ’92, Larry Susskind, David Wilkins ’80, Wendy Jacobs ’81, Bordone, and Van Loo. More trying still was the selection process for the ultimate team: a negotiation process designed and based on criteria selected by students, without additional input from teaching staff.

The class experience resulting from this interesting combination of research and immersion reads more like the plot synopsis for a Christopher Nolan movie than an entry in a course catalog: a class on multiparty and team negotiation requiring an intra-team negotiation to manage the creation of a presentation on a complex multi-party negotiation which would only be given based on the outcome of a whole-class multiparty negotiation. The class was called “Advanced Negotiation” for a reason.

The project demanded a great deal of independent research. Manfred provided a document that outlined the substance of the upcoming international draft negotiations and briefly identified the negotiation’s key stakeholders. There was a mid-semester videoconference with Vice President Marinak and some of his colleagues in which students were given an opportunity to ask specific questions regarding the project. Otherwise, students were left largely to their own devices to navigate vast amounts of information and anticipate what negotiation take-aways would be most valuable to MLB.

While I certainly learned a good deal about baseball economics in the course of my research, the most valuable learning came through the intra-team negotiations required of any team-based project. This was a rich self-learning process that resulted from a combination of journal writing, peer feedback, and a formal analysis prepared by an outside consulting firm.

Team projects can be an intensely challenging experience for HLS students for no other reason than it is atypical in the law school curriculum. The vast majority of us graduating from HLS will be thrust into environments where we will be negotiating with, for, and against other teams. Lessons in managing team projects like this one are incredibly valuable yet hard to come by for students in a learning environment marked by solitary study and the Socratic Method.

I will always prize the opportunity I was afforded to walk through MLB’s museum-like hallways and present my work directly to the custodians of America’s pastime. Even more valuable to me in the long run, though, will be the more scrupulous eye toward group dynamics that I will bring to the conference rooms and meeting halls where, far more than alone in my office, I will forge my ultimate success in the legal marketplace.