How to Negotiate Like a Lawyer

Whether you’re making a case to your boss for a promotion or buying a car at the dealership, professional negotiation skills can come in handy.
A photo of a woman shaking someone's hand

Few people have more experience in the realm of negotiation than attorneys, so we asked Steve Lutz, a partner in the Business Practice Section of Church Church Hittle + Antrim, for his seasoned advice. Although negotiation situations and strategies will certainly vary, these ideas and practices can apply in many common situations, so read on for Lutz’s smart tips to help you negotiate like a pro:

What should someone generally do to prepare before entering into a negotiation?
A photo of Steve Lutz, a man in a suit
Steve Lutz

First, you must educate yourself about all of the relevant facts. Heading into a negotiation, whether in a formal setting like mediation or an informal setting through direct negotiations with another party, without having the benefit of full knowledge of the facts of your case, including any unfavorable facts, is a recipe for failure. Mastering the underlying facts of your case will give you the information necessary to make informed and rational decisions during the negotiation process.

Second, know and understand your strategy and the results you desire to achieve (along with the results you are willing to accept) through the negotiation process. For example, are there certain results that you absolutely must have coming out of the negotiation and others that you can reasonably live without? Rank the results you deem most important to you and evaluate the strongest arguments you can use to support your desired results.

Finally, know that every negotiation is different, and rarely does a negotiation result in a complete victory for both parties. In most successful negotiations, there is give and take on both sides with each party walking away believing they achieved some, but not all, of their desired goals.

Should a person have an “ideal number” or target goal they are attempting to reach in a negotiation ahead of time, and if so, how should they arrive at that number or goal? 

If the purpose of your negotiation is to obtain a specific financial result, then you should certainly consider having a target number⁠ — or at least a range of numbers ⁠— in mind when entering the negotiation process. This should include not only a target or “ideal number,” but also the lowest number you would be willing to accept. If you are not sure what those numbers should be, conduct some research and try to reach out and talk to others who may have experience with the issues you are dealing with in your negotiation. As part of that analysis, you should also try to estimate the other party’s target number and minimum settlement figure. This should help you evaluate your opening offer as well as inform your negotiation strategy as you react to offers from the other party during the negotiation process.

Can you explain about the legal concept of the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” or “BATNA,” and how it can apply to a negotiation situation?

A successful negotiator knows that not every negotiation ends with the parties agreeing to a resolution. Even though neither party is prepared to reach a resolution on agreeable terms, that shouldn’t eliminate the possibility that one or both parties might still achieve some form of desired result. The BATNA, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” is generally described as being the most advantageous alternative a negotiating party will accept if the negotiation ultimately fails.

Knowing your own BATNA when negotiating is important and can be helpful in obtaining some benefit out of an otherwise unsuccessful negotiation. For example, if you are negotiating your starting salary, your BATNA may be to simply walk away from the job offer and look elsewhere. Before entering into a negotiation, consider any and all alternatives you would be willing to accept after considering both your position and the position of the other party, and then identify the top two or three options as possible best alternatives to settlement. By establishing these alternatives, you have more control over the ultimate result of the negotiation, and you will know when to end the negotiation if you are unable to obtain your desired goal or your identified BATNA.

Does it make sense to figure out what points you are willing to concede in a negotiation ahead of time, and if so, why?

As previously mentioned, negotiations generally involve a give and take from both sides, so it is always important to know whether there are points you can concede as part of the negotiation process while still maintaining the ability to reach a satisfactory resolution. Many times, making a strategic and timely concession of an immaterial or insignificant point or issue can create opportunities to obtain meaningful concessions from the other side.

When making a concession during negotiation, consider important strategic factors like explicitly letting the other side know you are making a concession, highlighting the benefits of the concession to the other side, and demanding a concession from the other side in return. Remember that in most cases, the primary goal in conceding a point to the other side is to try to obtain something similarly valuable in return. Knowing precisely what you can and cannot concede as part of a negotiation will provide you with opportunities to move both parties closer to a mutually acceptable resolution.

Are there certain specific phrases or tactics that you recommend using — or avoiding —during a negotiation?

First and foremost, never be dishonest. The best way to derail a negotiation is to say or argue something that you and the other side both know not to be true. Your goal is to achieve your desired outcome by convincing the other side of the value of your position. Dishonesty will erode your efforts to persuade the other side that you are right. Stick to the facts and argue the facts that support your position and the strengths of your arguments.

Next, don’t take anything that is said in the negotiation process personally. If you let your emotions get the best of you during a negotiation, it will cloud your judgment and make it easier to lose sight of your true goals.

Finally, be an active and empathetic listener during negotiations and try to build rapport with the other side. Actively listening to the other side during the negotiation process will not only help you better understand the other side’s position and possibly gain strategic insights, but it might provide you with valuable information to help you better communicate your position to the other side. Let the other side talk and state their case and then let them know that while you might disagree with it, you understand their position. Building a rapport with the other side can reduce tensions and increase the likelihood of a successful negotiation.

Negotiation is a process to get two parties to agree to a resolution they both might not like. In other words, in a successful negotiation many times neither party wins. Instead of trying to win at the expense of everything and everyone else, stay focused on your goals and getting past the obstacles that might prevent you from getting what you want.

Once someone has successfully negotiated a deal, solution, or compromise, what should the next steps normally be to implement it?

You should always try to document a negotiated resolution or agreement by having all parties reduce the agreed terms to writing. Negotiated settlement agreements that are reduced to writing and signed by the parties to a dispute can be enforced by either party through the legal process if necessary. Obtaining a written agreement on negotiated terms will help to eliminate confusion or disagreements between the parties regarding their agreed terms.

Depending on the stakes of your negotiations, consider engaging an attorney to review or draft any final agreement resulting from your negotiations to ensure that the material deal points are appropriately captured. Memories fade, and without documenting negotiated terms as part of the negotiation process or immediately thereafter, it is more likely the parties will forget some or all of the terms of their agreement creating more opportunities for future arguments. Even having a handwritten bullet-point list of terms that both parties sign, or an email circulated among the parties documenting the resolution terms, can go a long way toward ensuring the parties’ negotiated terms are honored in the future.

Are there any other negotiation tips or advice that you think is important to add?

Preparation is the key to a successful negotiation. Always spend time before a negotiation trying to understand your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the other side. Try to understand the other party’s perspectives and positions because that will only serve to enhance your ability to negotiate mutually agreeable terms.

Always remain calm and professional, regardless of the tactics employed by the other side. Losing your cool and becoming emotional hardly ever results in a better outcome. And — finally — always be prepared to simply walk away from the negotiation if the other side is not willing to acknowledge your position or negotiate with you in good faith. Walking away may certainly close the door on a successful negotiation, but it could also open a window to continued or future negotiations that may ultimately get you precisely what you want. Negotiating is a process, and the most successful negotiations occur when both sides keep an open mind and look to find middle ground.

Stephanie Groves is the Executive Editor of Indy Maven and was once a lawyer, but she still regularly ends up on the losing end of negotiations with her five-year-old daughter.

All of our content—including this article—is completely free. However, we’d love if you would please consider supporting our journalism with an Indy Maven membership.

Related Posts