I have recently been asked by several lawyers to write a few posts on mediation and negotiation terminology not only because some attorneys are unfamiliar with these terms, but also because different mediators and negotiators use them to mean different things.
Mediators, lawyers and negotiators who read this post are invited to add, correct, object, or suggest further refinements and to add their thoughts on further strategic and tactical uses and perils of the impasse-busters we discuss today - the bracketed offer and the mediator's proposal.
And because my readers may find this post as dry as bones, I once again offer the X-rated "Negotiation Table" as pretty #%$@ true and funny (think Ari Gold).
Bracketed Offer: Party A makes an offer to bargain in the zone he wishes to see the negotiation move to. This is often used when neither party wishes to step up to the line of probable impasse and it can also be used to re-anchor the bargaining zone. Quite simply, Party A offers to bargain in the range of, say, $2 million and $3 million. He offers to put $2 million on the table if party B is willing to put $3 million on the table, i.e., "I'll offer to pay you $2 million if you'll offer to accept $3 million to dismiss your suit."
If party B does not accept the bracket, party A will not be "stuck" with having actually placed $2 million on the table when the next exchange of offers and counter-offers begins.
Responding to a Bracketed Offer: Party B can: 1. respond with a counter-bracket, i.e., I'll make an offer to accept $3.5 million in settlement if you'll put $2.5 million on the table; or, 2. refuse the bracket and ask for an unbracketed counter.
The basics: the mediator chooses a number for the parties, making an "offer" to settle for, say $2.3 million which the parties are free to accept or reject. It is a double-blind "offer." If either party rejects the "offer" neither party knows whether the other accepted or rejected. Acceptances are communicated only if both parties accept, in which case they have a deal.
The circumstances: The parties should seek a mediator's proposal only when they have reached a hard impasse. A hard impasse exists when both parties have actually put their true bottom line on the table or their next to the bottom line and they see no hope of it closing the deal.
The purpose: Both parties believe they could convince their principal to accept a deal that is more than they wanted to pay or less than they wanted to accept, but they cannot convince their principals to put $X on the table or accept $Y. They hope to use the authority of the mediator to sell the deal to their principals. If they are the principals, they are willing to settle for a number lower or greater than planned but not willing to close the bargaining session having made such a concession, which would have the effect of setting the floor or establishing the ceiling of all future bargaining sessions.
The Mediator's number: I do not know whether there is a general practice among mediators about how they choose the number proffered. When parties ask me to make a mediator's proposal (I rarely recommend one in the first instance) I explain my practice as follows: When I make a proposal I am not acting as a non-binding arbitrator or early neutral evaluator. In other words, my proposal is not a reflection of the value of the case. The number I propose will be a number that I believe the Plaintiff is likely to accept and the Defendant is likely to pay.
In rare instances, the parties wish to continue bargaining in the event a mediator's proposal is not accepted by both parties. I have permitted this in a few circumstances after explaining to the negotiating parties that it often causes resentment on the other side because they feel as if the party who wishes to continue negotiating is unfairly attempting to use the mediator's number as a new bench-mark from which to bargain.
I highly recommend against continued bargaining after the rejection of a mediator's proposal on the day of the mediation. It should serve as a hard stop because the parties respond to it as an ultimatum. That's part of its power. Take it or leave it.
Just as you would not continue bargaining after indicating that you were putting your last dollar on the table, you should not continue bargaining (during that session) after the mediator has, in effect, put both parties' anticipated bottom lines on the table for them.