Education in the Age of Gen AI: Negotiating Skills Are Alive and Well

March 28, 2024

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on legal education in the age of generative AI. You can read Part 2 and Part 3 here.]

“The debate in the room was whether the law students performed at a level comparable to third- or fourth-year associates” is not something one expects to hear, especially with respect to negotiation.

A 2015 study commissioned by LexisNexis found that 95% of hiring partners and supervising senior associates did not consider new law school grads to be practice ready. More recently, in the 2024 Law School Preparedness Survey from Bloomberg, senior attorneys identified negotiation as new attorneys’ second most lacking skill, behind only business development.

MAC National Invitational Awards 2024
MAC National Invitational Awards 2024. Courtesy photo

These findings conform to the consensus of disappointment around practice readiness. But the waves of panic emanating from the dawn of generative AI make more pressing the eternal question: Is this low level of new lawyer preparedness inevitable? Not according to the results of the first-ever ABA Business Law Section M&A Committee National Invitational.

“I was blown away by the ability of the students showcased at the inaugural M&A Committee National Invitational. Both teams displayed a deep understanding of the material and concepts on which they were negotiating for their ‘clients.’ The debate in the room was whether the law students performed at a level comparable to a third- or fourth-year associate,” reflected Thaddeus Chase, partner at McDermott Will & Emery and a member of the subcommittee that constructed the Invitational.

Michael O’Bryan, partner at Morrison & Foerster and chair of the firm’s M&A Committee, agreed. “The students were superb, to the point they no longer seemed like students. It proved our thesis for the Invitational that focused training, practice, and access to seasoned, passionate practitioners—Committee members who volunteered to coach—was not only a better way for the students to learn, but also a superior means to get them excited about negotiation at an earlier stage in their professional journey,” he said.

The inaugural Invitational was a mock negotiation; a tournament-style, head-to-head competition among two-person teams from each law school—one team representing a buyer and the other representing a seller—in sequential elimination rounds that spanned December and January. The competition was built around a purchase agreement, a background dossier, and several scenarios created by the specially organized subcommittee, of which McDermott’s Chase was a member. Teams from 50+ law schools submitted to compete. Eight were selected. The final four—teams from Duke University School of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, American University Washington College of Law, and The University of Texas School of Law—competed live at the Committee’s January conference in Laguna Beach.

The American University team emerged victorious. Coached by David Albin, a partner at Finn Dixon & Herling, the American students, Nada Abousena and Grace Baer, walked away with a trophy for their school and combat-sport-like championship belts for themselves. Abousena and Baer also shared $10,000 in scholarship money, sponsored by digital legal learning company Hotshot. The runners-up were the team from Penn, Wendy Li and Alexis Brugger, coached by Debra Gatison Hatter, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright. Hatter reflected, “The competition was an incredibly rewarding experience. The students were able to learn, retain and apply difficult legal and negotiation concepts involved in acquisition transactions in roughly one month.”

MAC National Invitational Awards 2024. Courtesy photo

American’s Abousena concurred. “Participating in the MAC National Invitational provided me with an experience I would not have otherwise had without years in practice. To prepare, I used Hotshot videos and Westlaw toolkits to frame my original understanding and draft our issue lists and mark ups,” she said. “Most instrumental was being paired with our coach, a seasoned M&A partner, who met with us multiple times throughout the process. He was able to provide real-life examples to explain the significance of each provision and its implication for both buyer and seller. This helped us develop a deep understanding of the issues, how they were connected, and what their practical effects were in both a legal and business sense. We reached a level of preparedness and comfort that allowed us to be creative and think on our feet when negotiating in real-time against our opponents.”

Again, in less than a month, the law students upskilled to the point where they were negotiating at a skill level on par with a mid-level associate—as an extracurricular. In addition to the coaching and the practice, the students were given access to two learning platforms, Hotshot and Practical Law. Watching Hotshot videos—several of which were produced in collaboration with the M&A Committee—the students learned the practical aspects of topics like indemnification, caps and baskets, fraud carve outs, deal structures, and purchase agreements—topics not often taught in law school, but essential for being negotiation ready. The students turned to Practical Law for reference materials, including annotated agreements and checklists.

Norton Rose’s Hatter, the Penn coach, observed, “As we consider how to train junior lawyers efficiently, using video tools, surveys on ‘What’s Market’ and annotated agreements should definitely be a part of the toolkit and are invaluable resources. These tools can really help to improve understanding for attorneys in M&A.”

Ian Nelson, co-founder of Hotshot remarked, “When I was a junior lawyer, my training was essentially ‘review the diligence files for anything weird.’ Fast forward to what we saw at the ABA event, where students were negotiating sophisticated M&A provisions because of the program that was put in place—it was amazing to see, and so rewarding to be a part of it.”

Rita-Anne O’Neill, who awarded the trophy on behalf of her firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, the presenting sponsor of the MAC Cup, reflected, “I was deeply impressed by the students’ performance, especially their capacity to quickly absorb and apply constructive feedback. While the overall tenor of the Invitational was positive, the students were deliberately exposed to real-world feedback from real-world practitioners, just as they would be at a law firm. I was heartened that my fellow Committee members took this so seriously. Coaches. Judges. A packed room for the live semifinals and finals. It was truly special.” She shared that, as the former chair of the Women in M&A Subcommittee, “it was also encouraging that all four finalists, and seven of eight semifinalists, were women. The future of the M&A profession is bright.”

O’Bryan, the M&A Committee chair, shared what one aspect of that future will include: “We’re already getting questions about next season’s tournament. We’re expanding the competition, so more schools and teams can participate, with applications and qualifying rounds this fall. We’ll still have the final eight in January, with the semi-finals and finals at our meeting in Laguna in January. We’ll make announcements and members of the Tournament Subcommittee will start reaching out to schools over this spring, but interested students and schools can contact us (”

Casey Flaherty, LexFusion co-founder and chief strategy officer. Courtesy photo

Casey Flaherty is chief strategy officer at LexFusion, where he helps accelerate legal innovation. Casey is also a legaltech founder and has been a BigLaw litigator, in-house counsel, legal operations consultant, and law firm executive. Casey is an expert in the shifting dynamics of the legal market, legal technology, and the design of legal services to meet business needs at scale and pace.


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