Roger Fisher, R.I.P.

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Category: Negotiation, Public

Roger Fisher, Harvard Law Professor and author of the best-selling book Getting to Yes, passed away at the end of August, and I have been struggling to put into words how I feel. Roger was my first mentor in academia, and it was he who inspired me to teach negotiation. I was his research assistant during my second and third years of law school (1990-1992); served as a teaching assistant for his Negotiation Workshop, as well as a class entitled Coping with International Conflict; and ended up co-authoring two books with him based on the class, the textbook Coping with International Conflict and the mass-market Beyond Machiavelli.

For those of us who knew him personally, he was an inspiration. I still remember the first time that I met him — as a second-year law student after I had been hired to be his RA by the previous RA and having not met him personally beforehand. He was almost a foot taller than me — this very imposing, properly dressed professor, who peered over his glasses and in a very refined East Coast accent pronounced: “So I understand that you are to be my research assistant.” “Yes,” I stammered, wondering how I would be able to get along with someone so daunting. In fact, that was the only and last time that I felt intimidated by him.

Roger was so welcoming, his smile so sincere, that even when you disagreed with him (as I did on occasion), you wanted to continue the conversation.  

After years of meeting some of the most challenging leaders in the world from some of the most challenging places in the world, he had the ability to put everyone at ease. His ideas and proposals must be reasonable, one thought, since they came from this very warm, respectful man. Of course, some read Roger’s niceness — both in person and in his writings — as soft. Little did they know, I remember thinking, what he had been through in World War II as a pilot and losing so many friends, and how that experience had driven him to try to make the world a better place. His desire for peace did not come from a naive wish that we should all just get along. No, his desire for peace came from the hard calculation that negotiations rarely cost someone his or her life. And his success in international negotiations — from suggesting the process used at Camp David to assisting negotiations in one way or another from South Africa to Central America to the Middle East — was amazing.

His persona inspired generations of students to go into negotiation teaching, training, and consulting. A family tree of Roger’s students — now into multiple generations as we teach others — would be both wide and deep, in the legal academy, in business, and with a global reach into foreign ministries around the world. As for Getting to Yes and its progeny, these books changed the popular thinking about negotiation. The incredible popularity of the book — over one million copies sold and translated into at least 18 languages — continues to this day.

I connect here to the official obituary in the New York Times and the Harvard Crimson obituary, in which you can find further reflections on the Professor’s impressive accomplishments from me and others. Roger, we will miss you.

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2 Responses to “Roger Fisher, R.I.P.”

  1. While I did not know Roger Fisher personally, I briefly had him as a professor, and that brief contact reshaped the way that I looked at the dispute resolution process.

    In the fall of 1979, I enrolled in a class called Preparing for Law Teaching at Harvard Law School. The course was nominally taught by Dean Albert Sachs, but each week’s class featured a different member of the Harvard law faculty talking about developments in his (there were no hers among the ranks of HLS senior faculty in 1979) field.

    One of the sessions was taught by Roger Fisher and Frank Sander who earlier that year had founded the Harvard Negotiation Project. That the skills of negotiation were something that could be taught within the context of law school education was an entirely new idea for me. Nothing in my JD legal education at the University of Virginia in the mid-1970’s had pointed in that direction.

    Although I never became directly involved in the ADR or Negotiations movements, one of the most important developments during my years as a legal educator has been the growth in influence of this aspect of the dispute resolution process. I even find myself talking about negotiations in an informal manner in my trusts and estates classes.

    Much of the credit for this broadening of the focus of what lawyers do belongs to Roger Fisher and his many devoted disciples, like Professor Schneider.

  2. Rene A.V. Saguisag, LL.M. '68 Says:

    First time we met in 1968, January, Sir Roger asked our seminar class of about a dozen students to solve the crisis just created by the seizure of the USS Pueblo. Creative, original, erudite, and fascinating.

    It was only this morning of October 1 that I heard of his passing. I had just helped solve an estate problem of decades (where I was retained maybe a couple of years ago) and my client in San Fran complimented and thanked me, and mentioned my inspiring teacher.

    I was a member of Prez Cory Aquino’s Cabinet (spokesman of candidate and later Prez Cory; I became her Presidential Legal Counsel) and became a Senator for one six-year term (I did not run for reelection despite the high risk of winning, ha, ha) but returned to lawyering handling many pro bono cases.

    I was one of our country’s first human rights lawyers during the dark Marcos regime (from Day One, or even before) and the skills Prof. Roger taught our class and in his writings continue to be stars I go by in helping resolve tough disputes (such as in demo negos when we marched and rallied by the thousands).

    Yes, the best lawyers try to keep their clients out of court. After a devastating personal family vehicular tragedy in 2007, unable to litigate in court with a poor voice (I lost my wife, Dulce, whom I met there while she was working for her master’s in Boston College), I have settled so many cases, qua Settlement Counsel, not as Litigator.

    Thank you, Sir Roger, for the show of breeding, and the skills and the memories. You remind me of what Henry Brooks Adams said, that a teacher affects eternity.

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