When Will I Hear Back From You?

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To beat a dead horse is to “waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding.” A memorial service for today’s effort will be announced shortly.

We’ve written this before: what has happened to actually discussing open points of negotiation? Is it because it is now much too easy to deal impersonally one with another? Long ago, the only practical way to get a negotiation completed during the lifetime of the negotiators was to meet in person or pick up the phone.

Now, we will digress. There is an expression: “Riding the circuit.” Wikipedia has the following entry:

Riding circuit is the practice of judges and lawyers, sometimes referred to as circuit riders, travelling to a regular series of locations in order to hold court there. Circuit riding has mostly been abolished, but the term remains in the name “circuit court”, commonly applied to levels of court that oversee many lower district courts.

Here’s a practical description of how that worked. Imagine a “circuit” that covered nine counties, each with its own county seat. That circuit had a single judge, one who would “hold court” four or more weeks each year in each of those county seats. In effect, the entire court would move around the circuit from city to city. But, it wasn’t only the judge who rode the circuit (yes – on a horse), his clerks traveled with him. And, so did those lawyers who appeared before the judge. They stayed in the same hotels; they ate all three daily meals together; they drank together; they negotiated settlements with each other.

We who negotiate agreements used to do the same. If we were in the same locality, we’d meet in one another’s office or over a meal. More often, there was no geographic proximity, but there was a telephone. Of course, we used the mails. We would send a draft agreement by mail and, days later (if we were lucky), the postal carrier would return with a copy of the same document. This time, it had handwritten comments. We won’t labor on. You know the drill. It was like playing chess by mail.

Then, along came a technical innovation: the fax machine. Though invented in 1843, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the time it took to transmit pages fell to where it became practical for broad commercial use. Now, a written document could be received as quickly as could the human voice. But, while it replaced mail service with a faster means of communication, it was still a one-way communication. The recipient didn’t have to respond immediately as was expected on a telephone call (or at a meeting). Further, it was still the same iterative process, one that circled in on a mutually satisfactory result. By means of this repetitive process, we looked for convergence – the more back and forth, the closer we came to the final result.

Email and document comparison technology made the process even more convenient. Document sharing software, when trusted by adversaries, more so. But, all we have done is to further enable the iterative process. We can now go back and forth, faster, even to argue over a single word. It takes little time and no “personal capital” to do so, so why not? There is no keeping a “straight face” by email.

Today, we have even more advanced communications technology than email. Video conferencing is free and universally available. The iterative process can take place in a single face-to-face “meeting.” Let’s call it “one and done.” It’s not the same thing as meeting, over a meal, at the hotel across the street from the stable where we board our horses while visiting our county seats. It is, however, the functional equivalent.

Yet, who among us are negotiating our agreements electronically, cara a cara? Why not? Have we become accustomed to avoiding personal contact? Are we unwilling to take positions in person, ones we can hide behind in an email message or bury inside a redlined document?

In all fairness, some segments of our real estate community encourage or even insist upon meeting by telephone. Typically, they are the purer business segments – the investment bankers or the serious commercial real estate brokers. This process drives the underlying transactions. Ironically, it seems that the larger the transaction, the faster it moves.

What is Ruminations suggesting? It’s simple – when you get someone’s proposed agreement, pick up the phone – suggest a “meeting” by Skype, Facetime, Zoom or whatever. And, after the social niceties, start off by saying: “Here’s where I have a problem.”

If you want to discuss today’s or any week’s blog posting, call us at 973.744.0288.

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Comments

  1. Elliot L. Warm,. General Counsel says:

    I have been involved with too many situations where parties go back and forth seemingly endlessly with drafts essentially reflecting the wish lists of each drafting party. While there is nothing wrong with exchanging several drafts in order to narrow down issues, the process becomes unproductive when there are obvious disagreements that are not hashed out by the parties. I also note that it is helpful if, in the drafting process, the changes that are made to the other party’s product are accompanied by an explanation of why the revisions were made.

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