June 4, 2012

Coaching Little League Prepares You for Negotiating Commercial Leases

Jeremy CohenBy Jeremy Cohen, partner at Hartman Simons

Note: This post originally appeared on the Atlanta Business Chronicle's Real Talk blog.

Spring has sprung, and parents and kids across the country are heading to their local diamonds for Little League and Dizzy Dean baseball games. Before my wife and I had children, I had the pleasure of coaching youth baseball for five years. After a brief hiatus away from the coaching ranks following the birth of our oldest son (changing diapers, it seems, takes precedence over coaching other parents’ sons), I returned to the baseball diamond and, over the past 10 seasons, have had the pleasure of coaching my oldest son’s baseball team.

As it turns out, coaching baseball has helped me in my real job, namely, negotiating leases and other agreements on behalf of dozens of Hartman Simons’ commercial real estate and corporate clients. I was recently struck by the realization that my time spent teaching kids the fundamentals of baseball has served me well when working with my clients to craft and execute all kinds of different documents, including commercial leases. That may seem silly, but consider the following:

The Similarities Between Creating a Lineup and a Commercial Lease. Several days before a game, I will sit at my computer and will begin preparing for our next upcoming contest by listing an ideal lineup. That means that the team’s nine best players would play the field for all six innings and the three weakest players would sit on the bench for the entire game. That wouldn’t, of course, be fair to the three players whose skills may not have developed as quickly as the other players, but who may like baseball just as much as their more skilled teammates.

So, my assistant coaches and I have to adjust the line-up to make sure that each player plays in the field, since league rules dictate that each player has to play at least two innings in the field. There are often times when a particular kid may not have gotten a lot of playing time in the infield, but he’s been trying hard to improve. In that situation, to try and avoid any bruised feelings, we will put him in a prominent spot in the infield for an inning to help build his confidence and encourage him to continue to work hard to improve. Call it “picking your battles.”

Similarly, at the beginning of a lease negotiation, I will draft the lease to reflect my client’s best-case-scenario lease. During the negotiations with the other side, however, it quickly becomes apparent the final document will contain certain provisions that will be less than ideal for my client. My client and I then have to determine which battles we want to fight, and what compromises and adjustments we will need to make.

The Similarities Between Handling Players and Clients. Dealing with young players and firm clients requires a certain degree of diplomacy. Sound coaching principles dictate that, when a player makes an error in the field, you should sandwich your criticism in between two compliments. So if an outfielder overthrows the cutoff man, for example, I will first praise the outfielder for his strong throw. I will then stress the importance of actually throwing the ball directly to the cutoff man, and I will then finish by acknowledging his hustle in charging the ball. I am hoping that the outfielder will remember that the key point is to throw the ball to the cutoff man since a strong throw to no one in particular doesn’t help our team.

The rules shouldn’t be that rigid with clients but it generally is a good idea to mix positive comments with whatever criticisms you need to make. For instance, if a landlord client agreed to give a tenant an overly broad exclusive in the letter of intent, I’ll gently point out that such provision will cause him issues in leasing space in the remainder of his shopping center, but will temper such comment by saying something like, “Don’t worry. We’ll soften it during the lease negotiations.” The overall goal is to educate the clients so they do not make that same mistakes in the future. Luckily, most of our firm’s clients have been playing in the game a long time, and so these kinds of issues usually only arise with folks who may be new to the real estate world.

Both Situations Call for Treating the Other Side with Respect. I’m a pretty competitive guy (if you ask my wife, I think she would say “extremely competitive”). I definitely want to win all of our games, but I have to balance that desire with (a) making sure the kids on our team have fun and (b) making sure I am friendly with the opposing coaches. Most of the coaches in our league have been coaching against one another for several years, and we have become friends who will often get together after the games for a drink. After all, we have the same goals: teach our boys how to play baseball, America’s pastime, and to have fun doing so, thereby making it a healthy experience for all the kids involved. Being on good terms with the other coaches helps foster that goal.

It’s the same when negotiating a lease: sure, I want to “win” the negotiations for my client, but the ultimate purpose of the negotiations is to execute a lease. The quickest and best way to arrive at this goal is to interact with the opposing counsel in a friendly and productive way, much like my interactions with opposing coaches. That way, the end result is successful for both sides.

Of course, nothing beats on-the-job training, but if you have the pleasure of coaching a youth baseball team, you’ll receive a nice little bonus: the sharpening of your negotiating skills.

Jeremy D. Cohen is a partner with the Hartman Simons & Wood law firm.

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