Five Tips for Plea Negotiations

Training for Bargaining,” a new draft article by Jenny Roberts and Ronald Wright, of American University, persuasively argues that “[a]lthough public defenders may be dealt a weak hand in many cases, training focused on negotiation skills could help them get the best results from those cards.” I took away five tips from the article:

1. Stay positive. As Roberts and Wright note, research shows that “fostering a positive mood in a negotiation through tone can make the parties more creative and more likely to use negotiation strategies that seek to meet both parties’ interests.”

2. Prepare with peers and supervisors. Roberts and Wright hammer the point that many defense attorneys put much more effort into preparing for trial than for plea negotiations, even though pleas are the more common outcome. They suggest running negotiation strategy by peers or bosses, or even “mooting” negotiations.

3. Research the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA.  On this point, Roberts and Wright emphasize the three-step approach described in the popular book, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In“brainstorming a list of actions to be taken if there is no agreement; converting the most promising into tangible alternative; and selecting the best alternative.” In particular, Roberts and Wright argue that defenders should spend more time at step two by doing more factual research about the case before negotiating. They quote an earlier, empirical study of plea negotiations by Marty Lieberman as finding that “[d]efense attorneys who interviewed prosecution witnesses and conducted extensive fact investigations would, . . . in a great majority of cases, improve the bargaining position of their clients involved in plea negotiations.” This is, perhaps, the most resource intensive recommendation.

4. Remember anchoring and make the first offer when possible. “Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions. ” See Anchoring, Wikipedia. Thus, the best negotiators try to set the tone in their favor by being the first to set a value, and making that valuation as favorable as possible. Roberts and Wright concede that defenders are often not in a good position to make the first move, since the prosecutor has charging discretion. Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping this concept in mind.

5. Keep data on past plea negotiations. Roberts and Wright point out that it is hard to evaluate the “going rate” for a situation if—as is common—there is little data maintained regarding plea bargaining. They suggest that offices “might collect data about offers on particular offenses from particular prosecutors to defendants with similar criminal histories.”

h/t Doug Berman @ Sentencing Law and Policy

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