Friday, August 31, 2012

Showing Your Hand—That It May Then Be Bitten

Last of August; and so here comes the last (for a time) of my musings on King Lear. I experienced some serious angst in trying to decide which of the many things worthy of a lawyer’s attention to which to devote this post. At last, I settled on a scene that demonstrates a fundamental negotiation principle: don’t negotiate against yourself.

In the scene in question, Lear has left one daughter’s castle in a huff because she (Goneril) has told him he can only keep 50, not 100, unruly knights on hand as a condition of staying with her any longer. And, according to Lear, she has also “looked black upon [him,] struck [him] with her tongue,/ Most serpentlike, upon the very heart.” (II.4.159-60). Lear goes running to the other daughter, Regan. She, however, is skeptical. She urges Lear to go make peace with Goneril. Regan also suggests that, in due course, he’ll be calling her all the same foul names. But Lear makes it quite clear that his pride will not permit him to grovel to Goneril. And because he fails to read the obvious clues that Regan’s interests are more aligned with her sister’s in this matter than with Lear’s, Lear tries unctuous flattery. This strategy only exposes just how desperate he is:

No, Regan, thou shalt never have my curse:
Thy tender-hefted nature shall not give
Thee o'er to harshness: her eyes are fierce; but thine
Do comfort and not burn. 'Tis not in thee
To grudge my pleasures, to cut off my train,
To bandy hasty words, to scant my sizes,
And in conclusion to oppose the bolt
Against my coming in: thou better know'st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude;
Thy half o' the kingdom hast thou not forgot,
Wherein I thee endow'd.

Then Goneril shows up. After hearing her side, Regan again urges Lear to go back to Goneril’s—after dismissing half of his knights. She says he can then come to her place in a month as originally planned. Lear then further exposes his hand—swearing that he would “rather abjure all roofs, and choose/ To wage against the enmity of the air” and “be a comrade with the wolf and owl” then give in to Goneril’s demand. He calls Goneril yet more horrible names, suggesting that she is now no more than “a disease that’s in [his] flesh.” He categorically rejects her offer, declaring that he’ll stay with Regan instead.

But Regan makes it clear that it is not as easy as all that; she wasn’t expecting him. If he won’t take Goneril’s offer, than he has to negotiate with her in her own right. And she can’t see why he even needs 50 knights:

I dare avouch it, sir: what, fifty followers?
Is it not well? What should you need of more?
Yea, or so many, sith that both charge and danger
Speak 'gainst so great a number? How, in one house,
Should many people, under two commands,
Hold amity? 'Tis hard; almost impossible.

Regan offers to let him stay with her—but only if he gets his retinue down to 25 knights. Lear is appalled: “I gave thee all,” he says. Seeing that he has been backed into a corner, he turns again to Goneril and tries to accept the offer he’d previously rejected so unceremoniously. But Goneril’s offer has expired. And the sisters see that Lear has left himself completely vulnerable:

Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?

What need one?

And so: Lear decides he’d rather storm off into the storm, dismissing his daughters as “unnatural hags” upon whom he will have revenge—simply because they’d bested him in a fair negotiation.

Perhaps it’s easier for lawyers and business folks than parents to see the problem with negotiating against yourself. Yet I’ve even seen business clients do it despite sound legal advice about the probable consequences. I am thinking of a very dear client—a human being who was my contact within a humongous company—whose job it was to try to resolve a dispute with a vendor. The company was in the oil field services biz; the vendor was a middleman who had bought some pipe on the international market for my client. The vendor’s whole business model involved searching the globe for relatively cheap materials, assuming the risk of importing the goods for the actual customer, and then making a little by serving as the middleman. On this occasion, the vendor had procured some (really cheap) steel pipe from China. Too bad the pipe exploded under modest pressure shortly after it was laid underground, thereby bringing chaos to a multi-party, multi-state pipeline project. There was really no question under the parties’ contract who was legally obligated to make all this right. My client could not see, however, that it might be in the vendor’s best interest to resist for a while. So litigation ensued. But after just a little taste of litigation, my client was eager to get to the finish line. He wouldn’t even wait for a mediation. He wanted to make a final offer on the eve of a scheduled mediation in hopes that the vendor would see the light and spare everyone the trouble of convening in some distant city for a day to pass notes back and forth from one conference room to another.

Alas, I did not succeed in talking my client out of making that “final offer.” I expressed my fear that making any such “final offer” would just establish a new ceiling and give the vendor renewed hope of getting out from under this disaster at a bargain-basement price. But my client so hated the litigation shenanigans he had already experienced, and his pride had been so wounded by this vendor whom he had trusted, that he just couldn’t see why the vendor wouldn’t just do the right thing and thereby preserve the business relationship.

Maybe I should have insisted that he read King Lear before he made that pre-mediation offer that did not prove to be the “final offer” he’d envisioned. But at least he did get the resolution he really wanted; the lawsuit settled in relatively record time. Moreover, the experience was not so traumatizing that he stumble off onto the heath in the middle of a thunderstorm shouting:

. . . . You think I'll weep
No, I'll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

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