Negotiating to a win

NUS Law Class of 2021 Isabella Tan and Nikhil Angappan have emerged as champions of the 2020 International Negotiation Competition (INC) after a gruelling three days of stiff competition, facing teams from the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, India, and Wales. All three rounds of competition centred on the construction and operation of a moon base, and explored various contractual arrangements concerning space, construction, intellectual property, law, and technology.

The INC is the oldest and most renowned competition focusing on international legal negotiation for law students from all over the world. Due to the pandemic, the competition went online this year and comprised both INC International Rounds 2020 and 2021, and it was hosted by NUS Law from 28 Jun to 3 Jul 2021.

Despite working on their preparation entirely online during Singapore’s circuit breaker period, Isabella and Nikhil won the Singapore National Round in May 2020, and they went on to represent Singapore in the International Round in which 28 teams from over 19 countries participated.

We catch up with Isabella and Nikhil after their victory to find out more about their experience at the INC.

Tell us more about the INC and the competition scenarios you faced!

Isabella: There are two different types of competitions – moots, which usually involve mock arbitrations or litigations, and alternative dispute resolution (ADR), which usually involve mock negotiations or mediations, such as the INC.

In terms of the competition scenarios, there were three rounds, all centred on the construction and operation of a moon base.

Round 1 was a multi-party round concerning four space agencies from four different countries. We had to decide how to split the various roles and responsibilities, in terms of managing and operating the various facilities and projects of the moon base.

Round 2 was between the space confederation consisting of these four space agencies, and a wealthy billionaire who intended to travel to space and conduct mining operations there. This billionaire was about to commence legal proceedings against the space confederation for tortious interference and defamation as each party had very different ideologies pertaining to how space should be used, such as for the larger public interest or for commercial gain.

Round 3 was between two companies contracted by the space confederation to construct the moon base. We had to work out several items, such as timeline and payment terms.

What were some of the challenges you faced competing in the INC?

Isabella: The challenging part is coming up with a strategy which involves considering our parties’ interests, pre-empting how we will drive the conversation to get what we want in the larger scheme of things, preparing for possible obstacles, and knowing how to respond and deal with them.

Nikhil: Most of the subject matter was quite foreign to us! So initially, Isabella and I had to do some background reading, especially about how intellectual property is managed in space projects.

But once we had a basic grasp of the issues, the challenges became constructing a strategy (as Isabella mentioned) and pre-empting what our counterparties might bring up during the round itself. To prepare ourselves, we spent time going through and playing out scenarios we anticipated might be more delicate should they arise in the negotiation.

Another challenge we faced was coming across as seasoned lawyers, instead of just law students. Maybe it was our young faces or lack of experience in practice, but our coaches had to keep reminding us to “remember you are real lawyers!”

Given your past experiences in moot competitions, what were some of the lessons learnt that really impacted your performance at the INC?

Isabella: My experiences with moots and ADR competitions have helped hone my resilience. There were always ups and downs during the training periods for both types of competitions. Occasionally, I did feel like I was not performing or progressing up to my expectations, but I realised that it was important to take my coaches’ comments, reflect and learn from my mistakes and pick myself up for the next round.

Nikhil: Two big lessons I have learnt from previous competition experiences are defining what “success” means and the importance of being teachable.

I used to believe that there was only one measure of success when competing – the final result achieved. But there is so much more to it, such as the skills you hone, the people you meet, the teammates you become closer to, the fun you have, just to name a few.

And I have had my share of disappointing training sessions, where the comments and feedback are painful to swallow. I grew to recognise that the coaches and seniors are not there to fight you but build you, even if it might not seem apparent in the moment. Taking on just one or two key points from every training session will result in many improvements over the long term!

How does the INC differ from your previous international moot competition experiences?

Nikhil: Really different! Aside from not being able to travel for the competition, we had to adapt to rounds being held online. An important part of any negotiation round is reading the room, something which is harder to do through a screen than in person.

Another new encounter for me was the multi-party negotiation aspect of the competition. Before INC, I only had experience with two-party rounds. Learning how to navigate a four-party round was equal parts daunting and exciting, and it showed me some of the intricacies of deal-making when multiple stakeholders are at the table.

Isabella: One of the best parts about international moot competitions is the travelling and networking with people from all over the world. We participated in INC at a very different time, and it was my first competition held entirely online so we faced a new set of considerations in terms of our tech set-up, how we presented ourselves through a [computer] screen and using a virtual whiteboard instead of a physical one. (We usually use a whiteboard to set the agenda during mock negotiation sessions).

Why do you participate in these competitions?

Isabella: For me, my reasons are threefold: first, the travelling; second, I get to meet a lot of interesting people and learn about their unique experiences and cultures; third, I love challenging myself. Through these competitions, I feel that I am constantly improving on my public speaking, writing and ability to work in a team.

Nikhil: Two main reasons for me! First, the skills you pick up from these competitions are very helpful. Speaking, drafting, quick thinking, asking good questions, just to name some. All of these are useful whether in school, at work or even in daily life.

Second, I enjoy the process of working together with friends to look at a case, strategise and see it through to the very end. After the many weeks of preparation together, everyone in the team becomes closer and the fulfilment at the end of the journey is immense.

What are your thoughts upon winning the INC?

Isabella: Pleasantly surprised! We faced many talented negotiators. It was a very humbling experience for Nikhil and myself.

Nikhil: Incredibly grateful. Isabella and I would never have experienced success if not for our amazing coaches Professor Joel Lee, Chia Lyn Lynn (NUS Law ’02) and Lin Wenrong (NUS Law ’08). The victory is a testament to their time, effort, and dedication.

At the end of the day, more important than winning the competition is improving from where you first started. In fact, Isabella and I talked before the awards ceremony of INC, and we agreed that even if we were to crash out of the competition there and then, we were both still extremely grateful for the experience, our progress and our coaches.

Both of you have already graduated so do you still have plans to coach your juniors?

Nikhil: Both Isabella and I are currently part of the coaching team for NUS Law negotiation and mediation competition teams, and we even coached a team together last year. We want to give back to the ADR community in NUS Law, where our seniors have generously invested much time and effort in training us. There is no better way to honour that than by paying it forward.

Isabella: In terms of coaching, the ADR competition network in NUS Law is quite close-knit. Nikhil and I were both part of the Collaborative Dispute Resolution Club which helped to facilitate training sessions for new competitors. We have coached several teams during our time in NUS, such as the International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Dispute Resolution Competition. Coaching has been one way we have contributed to the ADR community and spread our love for this subject to our juniors!