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How to Negotiate Like a Lawyer

lawyer negotiatingOne of the things that surprised me back when I practiced law was just how often someone would hire me to do things they could do on their own.

One of these things was negotiating. I doubt I was a better negotiator than some of my old clients, after all, small business people negotiate every day. But even so, I do know that – to quote the Wizard of Oz – I had one thing they didn’t have: Training. So let’s say you need to negotiate something but don’t want to spend the money to hire a pro. What do you do? You negotiate as a lawyer would. Here’s how:

1. Choose a strategy: The conventional wisdom these days is that you should strive for a win-win in any negotiation. There is good reason for that. A deal where everyone gets most of what they want is one that 1) is less likely to be breached, and 2) makes everyone feel good.

But lawyers know that having everyone feel good is not always desired. Sometimes you just want to win, and can. Other times, worrying about the other side’s feelings is counter-productive. Of course, deploying this strategy is tougher when you will have an ongoing relationship with the other side, for instance, negotiating a raise with your boss. Win-lose works best when you can, well, be a jerk – negotiating the price of a car for example.

So part of what you need to do is decide whether a win-win or a win-lose strategy works best for you in the situation at hand.

2. Do your homework: The more you know about the other side going into the negotiation, the better your chances of getting more of what you want. Example: If you are negotiating the lease terms on an office, knowing the vacancy rate in both the area and this building would make a big difference, right?

3. Have some tactics at the ready: Sometimes negotiations need a nudge – or a push. At these times you need to deploy tactics to get what you want. In this case, it is best to have some ready before you negotiate. For instance, whenever my wife and I go shopping for a car, I am always the designated “bad cop”: The guy who says no, who complains about the price, the one who is willing to walk. It helps.

Here are a few tactics you can use:

Don’t make the first offer: Yes, this is Negotiating 101, but it is good to remember nonetheless. If you ask for a raise from $20 to $25 an hour and make the first offer, and your boss was actually secretly willing to pay you $30, you will never get anything more than $25, and you will probably get less.

If forced to make the first offer, be outrageous: “Well, I don’t know what you can pay me, but if I have to throw out a number, I would love $50 an hour!”

Always ask for more than you want: Have you ever seen the show Pawn Stars? People go into a pawnshop to sell their stuff and beforehand, on camera, they say “Well, I would like to get $1,000 for this vintage Alice Cooper poster.” Then they go in and ask . . . for $1,000. You better ask for $1,500 if you want to get $1,000.

Make a gesture of good will: This works best in a win-win session. Offer up something that you are willing to lose as a good-faith effort. The other side will likely do the same.

Don’t fall in love (or at least don’t let them know you are in love): When the other side knows something is important to you, it becomes leverage for them. If I am willing to walk off the car lot without the car, I will surely get a better deal than if the salesman knows I REALLY want that car.

Have a red herring: By pretending to be interested in something other than what you are really interested in, you can probably get that thing you really want by giving up on the phony thing: “Well, I guess I could take $25 an hour instead of $30 if you would match my 401(k).”

And finally,

Be willing to walk: Again, the willingness to walk away from the table with no deal is the single most powerful negotiating tool you have at your disposal.



Steven D. Strauss is the country's leading small business expert. An internationally recognized lawyer, columnist, and speaker, Steve is also an author of 15 books. Steve's highly syndicated business column, Ask an Expert, appears weekly at He is also the small business columnist for Microsoft, and AT&T who calls him "America's Small Business Expert."