Thursday, February 9, 2012

Student Spotlight: Ellen Wheeler ’12

When Ellen Wheeler ’12 reflects on her experience with negotiation at Harvard Law School, it seems the overriding incentive for her involvement was the fear factor!

Opportunities like the Negotiation Workshop, that put you outside of your comfort zone, are so valuable in developing skills and growing as a person!” Wheeler has been involved with the Harvard Negotiation Law Review for a significant portion of her time at HLS (she is co-Editor in Chief this year). Reading so much of the literature made her want to put theory to the test. “I applied to the Negotiation Workshop my 1L spring and loved it. I almost did not take it because I was nervous at the prospect of having my interpersonal and relationship skills analyzed.” This fall she took the newly offered Multiparty Negotiations Workshop as well. “I found that the supportive and open environment fostered in all of the negotiation courses put me at ease right away.”

For Wheeler the ultimate hands-on experience came in the fall of 2010 when her project for the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program blossomed from one semester into two. Wheeler, along with Bridget DeVoy ’12 and Lee Brand’12, worked with the International Law Development Organization (IDLO) to analyze the microfinance industry in Alexandria, Egypt. They were charged with determining whether the creation of an alternative dispute resolution system was both desirable and feasible, as well as with making recommendations on how such a system could be implemented. What attracted Wheeler to this particular project? “Like I said: scary! Also, I did a double major in college in government and economics, focusing on development economics. So I was very interested in microfinance and this project offered an opportunity to explore work from my undergraduate degree in the context of my Law School studies in dispute systems design.”

“The project was incredibly challenging. The hardest part was not speaking Arabic. IDLO was interested in microfinance but had not explored it in Egypt, so a lot of our work involved figuring out who the stakeholders were and developing those contacts. We spent a huge amount of time making cold calls to organizations. Often the person would answer in Arabic and I would just try to explain who I was, slowly, in English in the hopes that they would transfer me to someone who spoke English. This worked about 20% of the time.” Wheeler had very much wanted to experience negotiating with individuals despite a language barrier and she found the substantial difficulties around this challenging. Half of their interviews required translators, half were with stakeholders who spoke English, but in either case communication was extremely challenging. “I realized how much I rely upon the ability to notice connotation and nuances of language in order to frame or re-frame questions.”

One of the amazing and unexpected perks, however, was being in Egypt right on the cusp of the revolution. Wheeler and her colleagues flew home two days before the Arab Spring began to blossom. “A lot of work and interviews were focused on the government and socioeconomic issues that came up later on. It was amazing to be able to have an insight into everything that happened.”

As she looks forward to graduation in May, Wheeler reflects on her takeaways both from her clinical project and the Multiparty Negotiation Workshop she finished up in December 2011. The opportunity to grapple with and engage serious complexity was of enduring value. “Absolutely everything was complicated: figuring out the relevant stakeholders, making client contacts, setting up interviews, even getting around. Cairo cabs, for example, are completely crazy and we had to have the hotel’s front desk write down the various addresses in Arabic for us before we set out in the morning. Often, the drivers would drop us off as close to the location as possible, given traffic, but generally that was two blocks from our destination—on streets with no signs and buildings with no addresses! I feel like I am now fully prepared to be sent literally anywhere in the world for a client and trust I can figure things out.”

CAPTION: HNMCP clinical project in Egypt: (from l. to r.) Ellen Wheeler ’12, Lee Brand ’12, Bridget DeVoy ’10, Jeremy McClane ’02