A Cautionary Tale to Commitments

Many years ago when I was a young Consiglieri in training, I decided on law school as my path to career advancement. As I had to pay my own way, this was a very expensive choice. My school offered a mid-year admit program in January, and since I had saved just enough money to cover my first semester without having to work, I moved 3000 miles across the country and dove right in. My plan was to study hard, make it to the top of my class, and earn scholarships so I could continue to study without having to work full-time to pay for school.

I lived in a meager studio apartment with no television and treated law school like a full-time job – far different from college life and my first few years working full-time after college. After this first semester, I trusted my sacrifice and hard work would pay off when I learned I had made the Dean’s List and landed at the top of my class. However, when I spoke with the financial aid department, I was informed that since I had only completed one semester, I was not yet eligible for scholarships or grants. These would not kick in until the following year, essentially after 3 semesters and halfway through law school.

As you can imagine the Consiglieri was not happy.

Back then we had law school sponsored social events every few weeks with faculty and administrators.  Everyone drank, but “responsibly” so in comparison to college. Being on a very tight budget, my  classmates and I never missed out on free drinks and food. So it was at such an event that I found myself having a conversation with the Law School Dean who had complete authority over scholarships. In hindsight this was neither the time nor the place to start this conversation. But being an idealistic and bold young buck I figured this was the perfect time to speak my mind.

I had met the Dean briefly at a few prior events as this was a small law school and I spent a lot of time on campus attending law school events that first semester. I approached the Dean and explained how grades and LSATs were benchmarks for predicting law school success (mine were slightly above average), but that my actual performance had surpassed all of these students  (including those on scholarship). I argued that I deserved at least a partial scholarship. Without a scholarship, I explained, I would have to work full-time and my grades would suffer as a result. I would have to forgo all other law school activities and essentially become a part-time night student.

The Dean was not persuaded by my argument and told me I needed to continue to earn my grades for another year before becoming eligible for a scholarship. I knew this would not be possible working full-time. So as the night wore on and the drinks flowed I pried and pleaded my case to the Dean, becoming more emboldened each time. I reminded him that he would be providing scholarships to new and unproven students coming in the fall. I argued that this was not fair, especially at law school of all places, because I had outperformed all members of my class who received scholarships that were based on college grades and LSAT scores. By now the Dean had also had a few drinks and I guess had finally heard enough.

That is when I learned my first lesson that evening.

Lesson #1: Understand the impact of your commitment before you make it and your available options downstream if things do not go as planned.

The Dean bluntly let me know his job is to attract students to attend the law school and that scholarship money is simply one of the tools at his disposal to achieve this. Since he “already had me there” why in the world would he spend his precious scholarship money on me? I was briefly shaken and shocked as I had never heard nor was prepared for such an honest answer. But undeterred I fired back that he should consider the importance of having good students who would pass the bar, succeed in their careers, and provide alumni donations that over decades would far outweigh the scholarships doled out. I also suggested that I could transfer to another law school, a better one no less, so in fact he would be losing a student and could justify the scholarship as a means to keeping a top student. I thought I was arming him with justification for making an exception.

Well, lesson number two was about to be delivered as swiftly and fiercely as lesson number one.

Lesson #2: Negotiate the terms you require before making your commitment – do not assume goodwill, the moral high ground, or even logic will be rewarded at a later date.

The Dean immediately proceeded to describe the transfer process to me. I had done some brief investigating and made inquiries to some schools prior to this conversation, wrongfully thinking I was prepared as I did not know all the details. The Dean informed me that my one semester grades would not be enough of a track record to transfer, especially to the top tier law schools I had mentioned. These schools required another year of grades to assess my credentials, which would need to be in the top 5 of my class. Even if I got accepted, not all of my credits would transfer after 3 semesters since they would want me to take a significant portion of my required law classes at their school. Of course this would add to my costs and total time to graduate. Further, if my grades were in the Top 5 at that point, then I would earn a scholarship from my current law school. Either way, the Dean already knew that my options were not viable compared to what he was willing to offer – and it infuriated me. I was actually at a loss for words (which back then never happened!) and I was upset at myself for having been so naïve and… stupid. Plus the drinking at the social did me no favors.

Lesson #3: For negotiations, carefully consider the time and place as well as the mindset, goals, and responsibilities of your counterpart.

Sometimes you have to roll with the punches… and that is what the Consiglieri did. I worked 30+ hours per week, took a lighter course load, and added another semester to graduate. My grades suffered a bit and I had to pass on other law school activities such as law review and moot courts. I ultimately approached law school as a means to an end. I graduated in the top 20% of my class, received my diploma in the mail and have not given one dime in alumni donations. My view is that I earned my credits to graduate and they received their full tuition. Does this sound like some of your supplier relationships – very transactional, a means to an end, and not a relationship that takes full advantage of value opportunities?

But the lessons I learned that night are extremely useful and that is why I am sharing them with you. First, understand the impact of your commitment before you make it and your available options downstream if things do not go as planned. Second, negotiate the terms you require before making your commitment – do not assume goodwill, the moral high ground, or even logic will be rewarded at a later date. You must understand the viability and competitiveness of your options before you negotiate – never suggest alternative options until you have validated both their ability to influence and overall viability. Finally, give plenty of thought to your approach to negotiations. Consider the time and place as well as the mindset, goals, and responsibilities of your counterpart.

So take it from your pal the Consiglieri, had I understood these lessons back then I would have taken a completely different approach prior to committing to law school. And if I found myself in a similar situation after my first semester, I certainly would have approached the Dean far more diplomatically, armed with greater intelligence, and in a completely different setting.

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