Madigan, Bargain Again

Denise Madigan helps teach female professionals to negotiate for themselves

Published in 2020 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Jessica Glynn on January 15, 2020


Denise Madigan believes negotiation is a skill that can be taught, practiced and improved upon. Her own story proves it.

Before earning her J.D. from Harvard and embarking on a 30-year career as a professional mediator, she came out of grad school and accepted the first salary she was offered. She told herself she was lucky to get the job and didn’t want to risk losing the opportunity by appearing too demanding.

“I subsequently learned this is something a lot of women do, and it ends up holding you back,” she says. “Discovering that really changed my attitude.”

So much so that in the early 1980s, when she became interested in the work of Lawrence Susskind, considered the father of public sector mediation, she approached him with an offer. She would work at his MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program 10 hours a week for three months—for free. At the end of the three months, if he thought she added value, he would hire her. During those three months, she sat in on Susskind’s negotiation class and took two sets of notes—one on the things he was teaching and the other on what he was revealing about himself as a negotiator. When the time came to talk salary, she told Susskind she could give him a fair number, but if he intended to negotiate back and forth she was going to start much higher. By the end of the conversation, she got her fair number and a new title: associate director of the program.

Madigan made a name for herself in alternative dispute resolution, a field that she says has “dreary statistics with respect to women.” A 2014 ABA Section of Dispute Resolution survey found that for cases with $1 million to $10 million at issue, 82% of neutrals and 89% of arbitrators were men. Likewise, the International Academy of Mediators, on whose board Madigan sits, has just 32 female members, compared with 91 men.

That same year, while regularly mediating cases that went above that $10 million mark, and teaching negotiation for the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine School of Law, Madigan came across research noting the difference between how men and women negotiate. Again and again, the studies showed that women are as effective as men when negotiating on behalf of others, but not as assertive as men in standing up for themselves.

That’s when she and Pepperdine colleague Stephanie Blondell founded the Women’s Negotiation Academy, an annual professional workshop through the Straus Institute. The two-day workshop for female lawyers and other professionals is designed to devote one full day to negotiation on behalf of oneself.

Madigan often speaks to gender intelligence and the problem men and women have interpreting each other—particularly when there are too few women at the negotiating table. “Denise is really artful in talking to participants about negotiating the deal at the same time they negotiate the stereotype,” Blondell says. “She has triumphant stories on how to say no and maintain the relationship.”

Every once in a while, Madigan says, a man will attempt physical intimidation—like standing up and raising his voice. She can usually ignore such tactics, but a few times she’s had to stand up and yell back—“feeling slightly ridiculous in those moments,” she says. On one occasion, running out of things to yell, the former singer simply burst into song.

“It was an operatic yodel—not a Tarzan call, mind you—a very short one,” she says. “It was a natural outcome of having taken the breath. It wasn’t a conscious decision at all.”

A core component of the Women’s Negotiation Academy is sharing such personal stories, as well as participating in simulations while being coached and observed. The women who attend—lawyers, entrepreneurs, law enforcement officers and entertainment executives—are usually experienced negotiators. “It’s inspiring,” Madigan says. “We mine the insights of this group of women in a more intimate setting where women feel comfortable exposing their concerns.”

The impact of the academy can be immediate, she says, particularly when women who attend have upcoming salary negotiations. “We can encourage women to ask more frequently and to ask for more, but we still face a situation in which women may be punished for doing so,” she says. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

More information about the Women’s Negotiation Academy is available at:

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