Thursday, February 9, 2012

Student Spotlight: Vivian Choi ’12

Before coming to law school, I studied and worked in International Relations. I saw the world as made up of negotiations between countries of differing resources, doing what they can within the rules set by the powerful and the incumbents. Growing up, the news at home was always about how Korea gets the short end of the stick when bargaining with the United States, IMF or WTO. But there was no right or wrong, just or fair. We were just in the weaker bargaining position—that was that. Still, I thought that Korea could get a better deal just by having negotiators that knew the rules of the game, understood the language and culture of our counterparts, and were willing to be more active in shaping the process and pushing back on their initial demands. And I wanted to be that person. This dream led me to study international relations, then to continue my education at Harvard Law School.

My 1L classes seemed, at best, challenging but US-centric and, at worst, irrelevant to my career goals. To me, the ability to apply or distinguish cases was only one tool of persuasion, perhaps adequate for an attorney standing in front of an impartial judge in a courtroom setting, but far from enough for a negotiator navigating the power imbalances and emotions that come with international counterparts and domestic constituents. Even as I signed up for the Negotiation Workshop, I feared it would have the same narrow scope that I had found in my other law school experiences so far. But every HLS student and alumnus I had talked to said that this was the one class I absolutely had to take during my time here. Now, I can tell others the same.

I was most surprised at how personal the Negotiation Workshop gets: this is the only class in law school where you are challenged to think about your strengths, weaknesses, and your personal style, all under the guidance of passionate, capable instructors. The Negotiation Workshop also touched on many issues I had not expected such as how my personal hot buttons could get in the way of professional negotiations. The instructors helped us to reexamine what I had thought were inherent skills: being a good listener and an empathetic speaker. We learned to go further, listening actively for parties’ underlying interests and speaking directly to those interests. We were pushed outside our comfort zones. Previously, I had gone to great lengths to avoid “difficult conversations,” but I began to see that maybe they don’t have to be as difficult as I make them up to be in my head. Or I would make assumptions about the other party. Post-Workshop, my basic approach is: know your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), try to find a ZOPA (zone of possible agreement), build relationships—whether or not an agreement is reached—and be diligent about self-reflection.

Enthused from the Negotiation Workshop, I signed up for a project with the Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program. Dispute Systems Design, the class attached to the Clinic, was something I had been also interested in, as most multilateral treaties negotiate a built-in dispute resolution procedure as well. My project focused on helping the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission revamp their internal ADR process. Having a real client upped the responsibility factor. The most challenging part was probably planning the sheer logistics of the project, scheduling interviews and focus groups and administering surveys, even Skyping in for client calls from spring break. It was wonderful of the school to fly us out to meet our client in person, hear from him what a big help we had been, and see for ourselves what an important project we were working on. Knowing that we were helping to improve an agency that tries to resolve workplace disputes nationally made it extra rewarding.

This year, I was excited to see that there was a new course for Multiparty Negotiation. This was getting at the heart of what I really wanted to experience. In the Negotiation Workshop, the dyadic negotiations meant that two parties were already at the table because mutual gains could be made, so just by being there I was already given power and a voice. The multilateral negotiation setting of the Multiparty Negotiation Workshop had more varying power imbalances, many different personalities, and thus a wider range of outcomes. Sometimes you had to be more assertive, at other times you could free-ride. I reflected often on sitting with Korean delegates at the U.N., wondering why they would never speak up. Now I understood that if someone else present can make the case for you, why stick your neck out? The multiparty setting also created more opportunities to strategize away from the table. The class was challenging since being assertive and strategic are not things that come naturally to me. But whereas before the Multiparty Negotiation Workshop I was more apt to think that inherent power structures determined most of the outcome, and the only difference a good negotiator can make would be in the margins, now I view multiparty negotiations as something much more malleable. I am keen to look for the right opportunities and moments to shape or redirect a conversation.

The Multiparty Negotiation Workshop also delved into team decision-making, leadership and facilitation. The Guantanamo project was my first “multiparty” team project at HLS. I had never been involved in a project with such smart people and strong personalities before, so every team session was a challenge, while the assignment itself seemed like an impossible problem to approach. But we worked hard, collaborated through our differences, and produced an end-product we were proud of. Even though our team wasn’t picked to present its recommendations on Guantanamo in D.C., I was excited by our team’s process, the obstacles we overcame, and the rapport that was built at each breakthrough. More than anything, it was a great experience to tackle such a complex, high-level problem as if it were our own and is indicative of the work I hope to do later in my career.

After graduation, I’ll be doing Mergers & Acquisitions in a law firm in New York. Having never worked in the private sector before, I think it will be important to learn about the corporate side of things if I hope to negotiate for a country’s economic interests. I am very happy and grateful to have been able to study negotiation through such varied lenses during my time at HLS. The perspective I gained is not only pertinent to my career, but I think healthy for my life in general! Now that I see every interaction through the negotiation lens, things will never be the same.