May 05, 2010
A tuna fish sandwich instead of a fancy lunch. That’s what sports uber-agent Ronald M. Shapiro ’67 offered Baltimore Orioles superstar Cal Ripken Jr. some years ago when they met – and is the reason Shapiro was chosen over a swarm of other eager agents to represent Ripken, one of the best shortstops and third basemen ever to step on a ball field.
It’s Shapiro’s down-to-earth style, combined with a genius for negotiation, that makes him "One of baseball’s most respected agent-attorneys," according to USA Today, and among the top 100 “most powerful people in sports,” says The Sporting News. Shapiro has a dream roster of clients that includes more baseball Hall of Famers than any other agent, including Ripken, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Kirby Puckett, and such future Hall of Fame probables as 2009 American League MVP Joey Mauer, for whom Shapiro recently negotiated a $184 million contract with the Minnesota Twins.
What’s the secret to landing such a loyal group of clients? On April 14, Shapiro spoke at HLS on the art of negotiation to a packed room of students from the Negotiation Workshop taught by Clinical Professor Robert C. Bordone, Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP).
“Negotiation is a skill you can develop and learn,” Shapiro told the students. “It’s a systematic approach” that includes preparation but also empathy and respect for the other side. Another point he emphasized was that “Win-lose means lose-lose.”
“In order to get what you want, help them get what they want,” Shapiro said. “It’s using a mutual interests approach to solve problems.” He added, “Good negotiation is not talk—it’s about listening.”
Among his most challenging encounters were with the legendary trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the Orioles and the Washington Redskins. “Ed and I negotiated some very rough deals,” recalled Shapiro, who represented a “tremendous number” of players on the Orioles’ roster. Although the pair could have been viewed as adversaries, Shapiro added, “We both wanted the team to win,” and with that mutual goal, were able to successfully resolve salary negotiations.
“Don’t conduct negotiations as a one-time transaction,” Shapiro advised the class. “You have to see it as a long-term relationship.” Indeed, he and Williams developed an “unbelievable friendship” despite their differences, in large part because they treated each other with respect and acted with honor.
Today, there are more sports agents than there are players, Shapiro noted, but he never imagined sports would be his career. He’s not even much of a sports fan. Shapiro planned to be a civil rights lawyer, and out of law school went to work for a Baltimore firm suing housing developments. His firm also asked him to take over some securities cases, after which he was named Securities Commissioner for the State of Maryland – and that’s where his negotiating skills were born. There were simply too many cases to litigate, Shapiro said, and he had to learn to resolve them through other means.
For student trying to plan their futures, he said, “The world is a laboratory. Don’t feel you have to go in a straight line to achieve your goals.” And treating people with respect will always inure to your benefit, he stressed, noting the many times in his life that his approach has worked well for him and his clients.
One of his early lessons in successful resolution of thorny conflicts came while he was still with the law firm. A developer had purchased 470 farms in Maryland but couldn’t secure a final, critical tract – the one that provided access to all the other land. The farmer who owned it sat on his porch with a shotgun, hostile to any visitors, intransigent in his decision not to sell. Unlike everyone else who’d tried to talk to the farmer, Shapiro did his homework, and learned the man’s wife had died a few years earlier. Shapiro approached the farmer with respect and empathy, he recalled, and talked about his own experience living on a farm, and didn’t react when the man swore and hollered. He made several return visits, learned the farmer’s wife’s ashes had been scattered on the land, and secured the sale – by ensuring the farmer could remain in his house for the rest of his life and got top-dollar for his property.
Toby Berkman ’10, a teaching assistant for the Negotiation Workshop, said he enjoyed Shapiro’s advice, particularly in supporting the values that Bordone teaches. “It was incredibly valuable to have someone speak to the class who has had such a successful career in a cutthroat, highly competitive industry, and who believes in and practices a principled, ethical approach to negotiation,” he said. “I think it gave a lot of the ideas we teach more credibility and heft.”
Shapiro, who is also a Special Advisor to the owner of the NFL Baltimore Ravens and to the General Manager of the NBA San Antonio Spurs, is the author of three best-selling books on negotiation, including The Power Of Nice: How To Negotiate So Everyone Wins- Especially you!, and, most recently, Dare To Prepare: How To Win Before You Begin, published in 2008. Founder of Shapiro, Robinson & Associates sports management firm, he is also co-founder of the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, which has assisted more than 350,000 people as well as a number of organizations worldwide with learning negotiation skills. He has authored more than 20 law journal articles; co-authored books on corporate and securities law; and taught at Johns Hopkins and other institutions.
“Ron Shapiro really embodies the values we aim to teach our students—that by treating others well and acting with integrity, you can create lasting value for clients and succeed in even tough negotiation environments,” Bordone said. “Ron is a great example of a creative problem-solving negotiator."
Led by Bordone, the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program is one of nearly 30 in-house clinics at HLS, which has the largest legal clinical program in the world, and is one of the largest providers of free legal services in Massachusetts.
— Elaine McArdle