Law Talk with the Flock

The Art of Negotiating with Stanford Law Professor David Johnson

March 31, 2021 Jeana Goosmann, David Johnson Season 2 Episode 7
Law Talk with the Flock
The Art of Negotiating with Stanford Law Professor David Johnson
Show Notes Transcript

Guest Speaker, David Johnson, professor at Stanford Law School talks with Host Jeana Goosmann, CEO of Goosmann Law Firm, about the art of negotiation and how to improve your negotiation approach.  In this episode they discuss: 

1. What design thinking and systems thinking is in respect to negotiations
2.  Finding hidden decision makers
3.  Importance of timing with negotiations
4. Navigating ambiguity in negotiations 

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Goosmann Law Firm :

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Jeana Goosmann :

Hello, I'm your host, Jeana Goosmann , a CEO, lawyer, author, and woman business owner here to help navigate you through the law, your business and life. As a leader for today's episode, I have with me, David W. Johnson. David is a professor at Stanford Law School. And today we're going to talk about one of my favorite topics, negotiating Dave, welcome to the podcast. I'm so excited to have you here.

David W. Johnson:

Thank you. My pleasure. I appreciate being invited on

Jeana Goosmann :

And Dave, just to get us kind of kicked off. I know you have a very impressive biography and all sorts of great things you've done. And I see you're blushing there, but it's true. I've been really looking forward to this conversation. Maybe you could share with our listeners just a little bit about your background.

David W. Johnson:

Sure. The , you know, I impressive. I'm not so sure. Eclectic , uh, variable. Yeah. I can buy into that. I started life as a lawyer , in the courtrooms downtown Miami in the 1980s. And if any of, you know, anything out there in the audience or are old enough to know anything about the eighties in Miami, you know, it was a pretty interesting place to be particularly as a lawyer, particularly in the courtroom. So I did about 10 years of trial work in Miami and being a west coast kid at heart, having , grown up in Seattle, I knew I was going to go back to the west coast at some point kind of dragged my feet, doing it, but decided to go back to a second degree , a law degree at Stanford and then settled down in Palo Alto as a result of that and started going to work in , Silicon valley.

Jeana Goosmann :

What a time to be in Silicon valley.

David W. Johnson:

Well, yeah, you know I got there in the early nineties and immediately , took my first, not immediately, but a couple of years in took my first job , as a general counsel with one of the big.com companies that turned into a dot bomb company. So I lived the, the.com collapse and , which is a great education. In fact, I still remember, this is a little bit of an aside, but I still remember standing on the seventh floor in the lobby at Fenwick and happened to bump into one of the really, really, big, impressive CEO tech company CEOs who was a client. I want you to use his name here. It doesn't really matter. And we're just, you know, small talk. And he said, I told him that, you know, the, the, the company had cratered in the, in the collapsed and he goes, look, I can tell you from experience, I would much rather hire a lawyer who's or any other VP for that matter, who's been through hard times and survived than somebody who's just coasted in a very successful company because of the education you get from a hard times in a company is worth 10 X, just what you learn by, you know , polishing the brass and the, on the the wheel of the ocean liner as it goes merrily along. And, you know, there's a lot of truth to that. There, there really is.

Jeana Goosmann :

Persevering, right. Getting sick , getting up and going back after it.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. So just to finish off the , the arc then , up till last year, I've been working full time in Silicon valley. Although I took a sabbatical last year in Singapore, which is why , I stopped working and I started teaching at Stanford part-time 10 years ago , at the law school , and then kind of drifted into full-time , including , teaching negotiation at the design school. And we created a class called negotiation and design thinking , um, really apply design thinking for negotiators, the technical title. So that's the arc , you know , sort of under the theory of looking for open doors in your future pathway. I found a couple and made my way from here to there, from there to here.

Jeana Goosmann :

Well, negotiation is certainly one of my favorite topics. I dedicated a chapter in my book , Worth It, Business Leaders, Ready, Execute, Deliver to Negotiation. And I think we had a little bit of dialogue earlier about , I myself service outside counsel to businesses and GCs that work in companies and just all the different negotiation tactics that you can use when you're negotiating big deals. And I'm so excited for you to explain some of your tools and techniques and share some of your stories with our listeners and with that. So you talk about design and systems thinking and how they can add value. What does that really mean? Cause when I first heard of that, I'm like, well , what do you mean by design and negotiation?

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. So let me start , great questions. Let me start with , a couple of concepts that we teach at the design school. You'll hear me refer to it as the D school. It's just shorthand for the Hosso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. And I include that partly because Hasso, Plattner founded it and funds it. And he's also , one of the founders of SAP, one of the world's biggest tech companies. So he kind of gives you a sense of what the DNA is there. So at the D school, when we teach design thinking , we teach several different design abilities, two that I want to mention here that really do apply neatly to negotiation. One of them is a , it's going to sound little meta, but design your design work. And I actually, I guess it is matter. And then the other one is navigating ambiguity. So , uh, by designing your design work, when I bring that up in class , what I, what I mean by that for negotiators is making sure that as you sit and think in preparation about the negotiation that you have expanded the scope of the domain, the negotiation domain large enough, to capture all of the stakeholders, all the shareholders, all of the external influences that could possibly impinge on your negotiation, in favor, in your favor or adversely, I tend to lean a little bit more trying to spot the adverse o f potential adverse effects. And they could be people who don't at the point at that point, don't even know y our negotiation is happening. If it's a major deal and t here's some governmental approval i t's that has to happen, then you have to be thinking about the government actors right out of the gate, in your preparation and fold them into here's the systems piece into your systems thinking approach. Um, when I think of a domain for a complex negotiation, I'm thinking about I'm seeing it as a system with multiple pieces that operate in different ways and have relationships with one another relationships that may or may not be visible initially. So to extend that idea, if there's a government agency involved in this deal, I need to stop and think, is it possible that the opposing negotiator or somebody at one of the companies that is across the table is one of those people related to, or have a deep connection with somebody in the agency? And if I'm unaware of that, am I going to make a mistake in the negotiation by falling into the trap of just assuming it's an arm's length relationship they have with the government when in fact it's something other than that. And the only way that I can deal with it is if I think about seeing all of these pieces and the potential different relationships amongst everybody in the system. That's what I mean by a little bit of design thinking and a little bit of systems thinking.

Jeana Goosmann :

And let's talk about that a little bit further . So, so who, some of those parties and players, maybe I have an example from a case I worked on where it was a large company and it was the founder and the CEO one of the same, he'd been in that role forever, but come to find out, but nobody really made a big move in the company unless it went through his wife, she was the matriarch of the family and it was a family owned business. And if it wasn't going to fly through the Thanksgiving dinner table, no big move was really going to happen. And I, that was the first time that I'd ever encountered that in my career. And so I think there is an example of the kind of a hidden decision maker, right? Yeah.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. And, you know, I think the odds are pretty good. That's a , that there's a hidden decision maker in almost every deal that you look at. It, it may or may not be a spouse. It could be a second level VP who the CEO or the CFO just considers to be their sort of ACE in the hole. I don't know if you've seen the movie Moneyball, for example, the baseball movie with Brad Pitt. Right. So if you think of that, that scene where , Brad goes into the Cleveland Indians where he first meets , Pete, the the kid from Yale, but he ultimately hires the hidden decision maker in that room is the least obvious person in the room. Now it's, it's done a little bit for the drama purposes, but you know, Brad Pitt sniffs it out finally, and figures out that he's getting away late in that negotiation by the least likely person in the room. And that's a perfect example of seeing the whole system, which he did, but only sort of like on the fly better to see it on the fly then not at all.

Jeana Goosmann :

And , and sometimes I think you can use that to your advantage when you're negotiating. I know there was an instance, I was the chair of a liquidating trust and I got to hire counsel and we went to mediation and we did a couple of rounds. And then the first round, it became apparent that no one really realized that I was the chair. And the second round counsel I was working with, had to point out to the mediator that I was the chair. And at the time I was , you know, a young blonde in my thirties and just, the room was full of other older men. So you just never know when these circumstances are going to arise.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. And , you can always you can often use it to your advantage. I've seen situations. And I guess when I, particularly when I was younger , I'm sure there were instances where that occurred for me as well, where people were looking past me, even though I was g oing t o have a key, if not dispositive point of view on what happened in the deal, you know, t hat, and now w e'll segue a little bit to GCs. I referred to, you know, some, a CTO or a VP person, but I found in my experience that it's often the general c ounsel, who is basically a gating item for a CEO's d ecision-making, not so much that the CEO thinks the GC knows more about them business. They probably don't know more about the business than the CEO, unless it's a new CEO, but the CEO wants comfort wants to be able to say after the fact, w ell, I ran it all by my GC and the GC. She said it was, it was, everything seemed good to her. Uh, so we went with it. And so in the role of a GC, you can find yourself, and this could be inside GC or outside GC, and it could just be law firm, lawyer on the deal. It could well be that you have more power than you think in the deal, even if you're not the lead negotiator, because at some point the decision makers are going to want your stamp of approval. And if you know that you have that element of power, that at the end, they're going to want your stamp of approval. It naturally follows that earlier in the negotiation, you're going to have , you have a window of opportunity to affect the path of the negotiation in a direction that you might want it to go. Uh, and you will be heard before because the decision makers know that they're going to want to ultimately get your approval on the deal before it closes.

Jeana Goosmann :

So, Dave, talk to me a little bit more about systems thinking.

David W. Johnson:

So there's a lot of different ways that systems are thought about , particularly on a university campus engineering site sees it one way , computer science and other mathematics and other symbolic systems is not a school, but a division over on the other side of campus. They see it very differently. I tend to think of it in a very lay person, kind of a low key way, which is first of all, I think only about human systems , I'm not hardcore software designer or anything. So when I think about systems with respect to negotiation, I am thinking about as I alluded to earlier, all of the people involved in negotiation, not just people, but it includes institutions. It can even include government agencies, organizations. It can include more conceptual things, rules, laws, constraints, resource issues , suppliers, vendors, et cetera, et cetera , all the pieces that , are at work and, and relevant to the company, to the organization, to the extent that it's , touches on the issues being negotiated. And , it's easy to overlook. And so as a negotiator, so I use the idea of a system , as a tip of the spear, I guess, get students and occasionally clients, when I'm consulting to think about the the larger domain of the state space of the negotiation, if you will. And the key to me is not so much just getting all the relevant pieces into the space, but thinking about the relationships that they have with one another, sometimes they're very strong relationships. Sometime they are neutral relationships. Sometimes there are not relationships that exist yet, but need to be built. This happens in my view in M and A a lot , because the biggest issue I've learned over the years , to a success, you can get a great negotiation on paper. You can get a great deal on paper and then have an acquisition go south because nobody was really paying attention to the integration process. So it's been long understood. This is not new stuff. That integration is key to maintaining the value of the target when you're paying a premium particularly. And so in the negotiation, I like to think about the issues of integration that are going to come up while we're talking about the acquisition and starting even to bring people in, who we know are going to be necessary , relationship members , key factors in the relationship between the acquiring company and the target company. So that's one example of thinking in a systems way. There's no magic to it. It's not like you know, if I did a two hour seminar and systems thinking, you'd come away thinking you've, you've got the magician's secret. It's just a way of seeing that helps you do your job as a negotiator, more effectively, or as a lawyer, more effectively, again, you don't have to be the negotiator. You could be the fourth lawyer on the deal team and not be asked to say a word across the three or four weeks of meetings, but by what you see and how you're prepared, you can identify a lot of things going on that you would want to raise up the ladder. And you know, if you're a junior lawyer, trust me, when I tell you the senior people have their hands full and they don't know everything. And so if you spot some weird discussion going on in the hallway between two people on the other side, that seems a little unusual, think about it. And if it's warranted send that up the ladder and let somebody else think about why X was talking to why or why Z isn't talking to X the relationships are really important, particularly when you're doing a partnership or a merger , a business deal that is not conflict resolution, but actually partnership building.

Jeana Goosmann :

I think that's a great point, too, for people as to when you see something speak up. Right. And I know I have a hard time not speaking up, but that's not the case for everyone. And so I think that that's a good way to add value is to just think if you're thinking in your head it's probably got something to it. Good point with that. And I so Dave, what do you think about timing and negotiations?

David W. Johnson:

I'm loathed to use sports metaphors, but I'm going to because it's, so it works so well for the issue of timing. And you can pick any sport. When in class I'll have a student pick a sport. Jeana, if you want to pick a sport, I'll see if I can make it work.

Jeana Goosmann :

U h, b asketball i s hot right now.

David W. Johnson:

Okay. Let's talk about basketball. So , um, in the first quarter of the second quarter of the basketball game, the, any given shot, when you, you take a three-pointer is still worth three points, but it's generally speaking of far less value than when you're taking a three point or with five minutes or less left in the game. Assuming the game is still close enough to be decided one way or the other. Now that kind of seems obvious, but in negotiation, people don't seem to fully get the idea that asking a question or introducing a new fact along the timeline of a negotiation, whether it's three hours, one afternoon in the conference room, or whether it's spanning three weeks with, you know, three to five hour sessions every other day, that there are points in the dialogue of the negotiation where asking a particular question or introducing a particular fact has a whole lot more value at one point in time than another. You know, the, my favorite sports example is tennis and it manifest itself this way. And I had a CEO ask me this once because he was friends with Billy Jean King of all people. And he asked me what we were talking Tennis. He goes, well, if you think, you know, tennis, what's the most important tenant point in tennis. And I said, well, it's the point by you k now, before breakpoint. And he, s o you're right. You know, and it's, it's something that you would learn if you play the game, but the point by which the only way you break serve is t o is get a break point. The only way you get a break point is by earning the break point. So the most important t ennis is earning that break point, giving yourself a chance to break serve, and then when the set. And so I think of it in that way that, u h, let's say, we're talking about a particular patent. I call it the four 15 patent. And t hat, that patent is really a sort of a pivot point. Pardon my a lliteration is kind of a pivot point, t he negotiation, well, some, you know, young, inexperienced negotiators might bring the four 15 up in the first or second hour of the negotiation. And in fact it may be much more valuable, m ay b e much more useful, may even create more leverage to bring it up later in the game, or at some point, that's designed during the negotiation rather than just sort of randomly. And you know, equally valid. It could be the first thing out of your mouth. When you sit down and say, we're not g oing t o, we're not g oing t o have a negotiation here, unless you can assure me in writing under oath that the four 15 patent is, is absolutely a valid. And, u h, it's just a matter of when you decide to bring it up. And that sort of takes you back to the, the idea of designing your negotiation.

:

I do relate. I think to experience helps you learn a deal cadence, right? And you, you brought up a inexperienced person, right. Just bring it up randomly. And , and if you have it thought out in advance before you go into the negotiation, but then also being able to read the different players and when is the right time and how to keep the cadence of a deal moving forward.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. And that right time , may often come up on a moment's notice. So in my design prep work, I might think that the right time, let's say we're doing the plan is three negotiations sessions, Monday, Wednesday, Friday afternoons. I may think to myself, okay, Wednesday afternoon is when I want to bring this up. But it turns out that one hour in on Wednesday morning or late Tuesday afternoon, the other side says something introduces a fact , challenges, some point or argument that I'm making that makes it an absolute wide open door for me to then drop that subject at that point in time. In other words, you see the opportunity to get a whole lot more value because of something your opponent did usually an error I would argue. But , so that takes me to , we touched on earlier navigating ambiguity. Um , for me, the big teach, the big idea in addressing what we all have to do in navigating ambiguity is finding how to heighten your awareness. Ambiguity is we're going to run into it every day . We all run into it every day. And one of the ways that I like to teach, approaching ambiguity and being comfortable in ambiguity, because the only way to navigate it is if you're comfortable and the only way to be comfortable is to be aware. And so having to sort of raise your game, like walking on stage , like going on camera , heightening your awareness to what's going on, or where I learned it, stepping out, stepping out in front of a jury on live action court courtroom , you better have your awareness heightened, or you're going to get run over by a truck. And so , heightened awareness allows you to, to see the opportunity when it presents itself in a negotiation for you to play a certain card in your hand at a certain time to me.

Jeana Goosmann :

Yeah. It's so interesting that you bring that up. I was just going to say that I know I wear a smartwatch and it tracks my heart rate, and I can go back and see a days where I had a big negotiation and my heart rate actually functions at a higher level. And yet I've worked really hard over the years to keep that in check, but I can just tell that mentally I'm in a different place and my whole physique is in the game, so to speak. Yeah.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. And , you know, you can, you know, it, when it's happening to you, athletes like to call it being in the zone, but you can also sense when your opponent is in the zone or not in the zone. And when they're in the zone and they're at the height of their game , you know, sometimes that's when you want to just slow things down when you want to distract or deflect, sort of muddy stuff up because you don't want them to be doing to you what you are trying to do to them. It's a little bit like , to use the basketball metaphor , uh, playing a full court, press defense for a little bit of time just to break their rhythm. And , there's, there's, there's a defensive element to negotiation as well, defensive strategies as well , because it is at the end , facts and law side . It is ultimately a psychology game.

Jeana Goosmann :

And one of the things I've started to notice more , in the negotiations or the different mediums of communication and how it's not necessarily , just one medium of communication that might be at play anymore. And I'll give you a quick example of what a deal I was just negotiating. We had, the lawyers were negotiating in one place. There was the business side of the business players were talking on another end. And then the CEO and CEO were talking, and there were some in-person negotiations. There were some via zoom. And, then we have the text exchanges and the cadence of the different , avenues. And then I was trying to navigate the whole thing and help orchestrate it and give advice to the CEO through the process. And, but just what was expected to come through text and how quickly you're supposed to respond to that and all these different levels of communication tools , and the cadence , deal. It's, it's just getting more complex as we add different communication tools.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. You know, You see it with slack , which is almost become a crutch. Actually. I think in tech companies, they, they use it a lot. I don't know about the rest of the country, but , uh, tech companies use it a lot and , I have mixed feelings about slack, but, but people use it. And there you go. So , and it is, I think the, the idea behind slack is immediacy. Text messages may have a little bit of a little lag time , sort of normalized into their use. Doesn't have to be that way, but yeah, it's become more complex and keeping track of who's influencing whom again, kind of goes back to the matriarch story that you told and the hidden decision maker and systems approach. And, and you could, we, you know, we could talk again about just the aspect of the technology and the communications amongst everybody as its own system that needs to be analyzed as to who's speaking to whom when and how, because , you know, you have a zoom meeting . If you have a zoom negotiation, everybody logs off after three hours, you know, there's more communication going on after everybody logs off the zoom. And it may be negotiation that I, as a GC am not really keen that my CEO is having with somebody on the other side, CEO's in my experience, and maybe your experience is different love to go rogue.

Jeana Goosmann :

Oh yes, no. I will verify that.

David W. Johnson:

It's a great trait when they're really good at it. And it's, it's a very scary trait when they're not so good at it. And, you know, I've spent a lot of time just thinking about whether I've made decisions in negotiation, team negotiations based solely on betting that my CEO is better than their CEO. And that will, that will literally dictate structure, sorry?

Jeana Goosmann :

And they could be a better witness. So I always , as a litigator, I think of that too. I've had some conflicts cases of MNA gone wrong, or joint ventures gone wrong. And I can tell you, the CEO is going rogue and having side conversations. We can talk about rule 4 0 8 and that'd be a whole other podcast, I think. But , after having some in-court experience with the settlement negotiation, what kind of negotiation is a business negotiation , as an outside counselor , even inside counsel, having your CEO go rogue is something that , it's real. And I think you have to be prepared for it. And then just making sure they know too, that those conversations can come back to bite you later.

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah. Uh , I haven't had the pleasure of having settlement discussions , uh, surface in a litigation , and get admitted, you know, be ruled outside of settlement discussions, but I could see where that could happen particularly with , uh, the last five years worth of technologies. Yeah. That's an interesting idea. Thank you for that.

Jeana Goosmann :

Yeah. We can have a whole other podcast on that topic. So I know just , I want to keep this moving a little bit and if we were going to kind of summarize as far as your opinion on one of the most fundamental negotiation principles what is that?

David W. Johnson:

Yeah. You know, I looked at my notes and jotted down this, which is process design. Now that sounds like a big as, as one of my professors used to say, one of my Stanford professors when I was a student used to say, that's just a big $2 Harvard phrase. And it sounds like murky and squishy all at once, what I mean by process design is from the beginning of your negotiation and all the way through thinking about ways that you can either design in advance or in real time when things are changing , um, manage the process, use the tools you have at hand to manage the process. So things go in the right direction, not the wrong direction. So you can forestall the other side, try and block the other side and moving in a direction that you don't want them to go to. And you can encourage your side to continue to open the door and move the door , move the conversation, or the discussion or the topic, or the evidence in the direction that you do want it to go. So it's a, it's a catchall phrase for designing the process. And one of the reasons that I find, and this is just pure experience, and I'm sure you've had this experience. And when I say this, I'm sure you're going to have an example come to mind is an engineering term called path dependence, which is to say when , in engineering, when something, a machine or a system or even in physics, when any event starts going in one direction, it tends to keep going in that direction. And it doesn't retrace it straps and go back to the trunk of the tree. And so in negotiation, it's the same thing. If, if the conversation starts going off on a tangent, if I'm not really careful, I will never get that conversation back onto the original tracks. I may have to let it go down that path. And then re-introduce the prior tracks. But even then, you know, an hour later, I may not capture the context. May I may not, I may lose the Mindshare , and the memory, the short-term memory that people had when they were immersed in the moment an hour earlier. And if I really like the moment they're immersed in at that, that hour earlier time, I am going to do whatever I can to prevent the conversation from going down the sidetracks, even if it's a fruitful conversation to have, I'm going to try and control that and avoid getting trapped by path dependence and conversely , uh, in a defensive posture, if it's happening to me. And I want to derail the conversation away from a place where my CEO or one of my negotiators is going to get stuck, then I'll try and introduce a side, a side set of rails to move the train off the tracks and get, and use path dependents to my advantage, to let people sort of forget the fear , the heightened energy, the emotion, or the attachment they add at that moment, and hope that an hour later, things will have loosened up and they will , uh, reconsider or even reframe at that point. So process design and path dependence are kind of my big two.

Jeana Goosmann :

Can you explain what would be some of the tools that people would have in their kit in order to influence that?

David W. Johnson:

You know, I'll go to heightened awareness because if you don't see it, you can't do anything with it, but , I'm gonna parse this a little bit. If you're on the deal team, like I said in your second, third, fourth chair, and you're doing most of the note-taking document management , you know, reading the opponent , et cetera, et cetera, the, the, your job is to be the eyes and ears of the person who's, who's actually driving the train. So , in that instance , I think the tool is pure attentiveness and not letting yourself get distracted, not letting yourself, you know , start hearing your own voice in your head, really staying in the zone , and , making sure that, that you feel comfortable, that things are where they are and spotting obstacles. And in addition to that, having the courage to pass a note , up the ladder saying, I think we want to take a break. I think we should regroup. I think we should reframe this issue. Let's just all get together and take 10 minutes. Calling for breaks in a negotiation is a vastly underused tool. It is enormously powerful when done well. If you're the lead negotiator I think I'm going to go with the converse. There's lots of things that I could say, but I'm going to go with the converse, which is train your team to be that kind of active participant there. They be there to gain experience in watching you do your work, but use the power of the, you know, the eyes, ears, and brains that you pay a lot of money to have in the room with. You use that and coach them up before you go in, let them know that it's okay for them to jot a note and pass it up to their senior person. And if it makes its way to you as the lead negotiator, then you know, then, you know, your team is saying, let's take a break, let's change the subject, let's take the temperature down, or let's take the temperature up, whatever the coaching might be, use your team. You're almost, you're almost crowdsourcing the negotiation that way. And almost all the time when I see a senior lawyer with three or four , uh, juniors on the other side of the table, I don't see that dynamic going on. I look for it. I don't see that dynamic going on. So this can be a real advantage. When you play, you know, team baseball or team football against the opponent who really is trying to play one star and , and supporting cast it makes a difference.

Jeana Goosmann :

Work as a team. That's really powerful. And I think , at the Goosmann Law Firm, that's one of the things that we've set up the firm differently with our structure in order to be able to function as a team. And , because I think you are a lot stronger when you work as a team versus a hierarchical , in a way that, you know , people really get siloed or they're scared of their higher ups, so to speak. Yeah. Well, Dave, thank you so much. David W. Johnson on Law Talk with the Flock podcast today, and we are so excited that you shared your insight on negotiation. One of my favorite topics, I want all of our listeners to go have a great day and make it worth it. Thank you. Thank you.

Goosmann Law Firm :

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